The SFF Librarian Reviews, July 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!
Every now and again, you find a novel that renews the spirit and nourishes hope that things can, in fact, be better. In these dark times (although you could argue that every time is dark for someone), those kinds of stories are real treasures, and increasingly necessary to our sanity. When you happen upon a story like that, you hold onto it with both hands and you clasp it to your heart, and it stays with you. For me, such a story is Becky Chambers’s The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Harper Voyager, 2021, $16.99), the final novel in her Hugo Award-winning Wayfarers space opera series. Galaxy is a beautifully written tale of friendships, and suspicions, and the universality (literally) of compassion and connection.
The Galactic Commons in which Chambers sets her series is a vast and sprawling multicultural alliance – its interstellar traffic, trade, and cultural exchange connected via wormholes – that encompasses countless species across the galaxy, including humans. Each book in the series deals with different sociocultural segments of the Commons: the multispecies crew of a wormhole tunneling ship; the exploited members of the economic underclass; the personhood of AIs; and the lives of humans living in space as refugees from a wrecked Earth. Along the way, each work is marked by careful and layered worldbuilding, as well as a changing array of characters with real emotional dimension. Chambers brings these same features to Galaxy but adds a new and wonderful facet that turns out to be (ironically) brilliant in the degree to which it ends up not mattering to the reader. (I’ll unpack that in a minute.)
Galaxy is set on the tiny, virtually lifeless planet of Gora. Its population resides in domed settlements that sit amidst the rock-strewn, atmosphere-free environment. Goya is useful to the Commons only as a stopover point, a high-tech rest area, for ships travelling the wormhole network that connects the galaxy. One of the settlements belongs to Ouloo and her son Tupo, a pair of furry mammalian Laru that run the Five-Hop One-Stop, essentially a cosmic truck stop. It’s a place of service and hospitality for spacers on long, boring journeys, and an oasis of civilization amid the darkness of space. On what should be a typical day, three ships arrive at the Five-Hop, carrying the other protagonists—Speaker, one of two Akarak sisters running cargo for members of their homeless and wandering species; Roveg, an exile from his people, the arthropodic, xenophobic Quelin; and Pei, an Aeluon (a humanoid species that communicates amongst itself through flashing colors on their skin) ship captain who runs supply missions into war zones. A cascading technological disaster strands these disparate travelers at the Five-Hop with the ever-hospitable hosts Ouloo and Tupo, cut off for several days from off-planet communication or the means to leave Gora. What follows, is remarkable in its simplicity.
There are no spaceship battles. There are no evil aliens infiltrating the settlement. There is no interstellar plague or asteroid storm or ever-decreasing life support ticking down the narrative clock to instill drama and suspense. Instead, what happens is that the group learns to bond, to understand each other, to speak to one another across vast barriers—biological, lingual, and cultural. Several of them are already obliged by circumstance to alter themselves in order to interact with other citizens of the Commons: the Aeluon are voiceless, and so must have voice implants installed to communicate with others, while Akarak outside their ship must wear mech suits to create a breathable atmosphere of methane for themselves in a galaxy of oxygen breathers. These technological intermediaries have prepared Speaker and Pei to converse and work with other species on superficial levels; however, being forced into close quarters requires more than tech—it requires each being to engage more deeply with their fellows. That kind of emotional intimacy is frightening, and one of the beauties of Galaxy is the ways in which Chambers shows each of the group confronting their fears and prejudices and assumptions. Equally as frightening, but equally as important to the novel, is the concept of self-introspection—as the days of confinement tick on, every occupant of the Five-Hop finds themselves examining their own life choices, those that ultimately brought them to this point in time and space. Could things have been different? Would they be the people they are had they made different choices? These are weighty questions, and Chambers’ book is all the more delightful and rewarding for those questions being asked by relatable, complex characters who interact with each other in believable, entertaining ways. Readers will find great joy in the development of these (mostly) quiet, increasingly warm interactions and the strengthening of emotional links among the Five-Hop denizens. These were the source of the hope and joy I repeatedly found in the course of Galaxy.
As to the facet I mentioned above, that made this book particularly remarkable to me, it is this: Unlike previous volumes in the series, which focused mainly on human characters, in Galaxy not a single human features anywhere. (Pei’s human lover is referenced by her but does not make an actual appearance). Every character in the book is an alien, but the magic lies in the fact that the reader will scarcely notice. Chambers’ aliens are themselves so full of the aspects that constitute humanity, that actual humans prove unnecessary. Certainly, Chambers is far from the first writer to use nonhumans to chronicle what we might think of as “the human experience”, but she does a singularly effective job here of demonstrating the (literal) universality of that experience. It’s something I found particularly striking, but it’s only one of the many marvels of this novel.
One of my favorite books of 2019 was A Song for a New Day, the debut novel from short fiction wizard Sarah Pinsker. Pinsker’s tale of a near-future US stricken by plague and terrorist attacks in which large in-person gatherings have been outlawed was eerily relevant for the COVID era. But what could have been just another literary dystopia was made exponentially richer by Pinsker’s focus on the intangible magic of live musical performance and the necessity of human connection, especially during times of disaster. The book was a beautiful call to be brave in the face of overwhelming fear.
Now Pinsker has returned to novels, with We Are Satellites (Berkley, 2021, $16.00). She’s also returned to timely near-future stories, this one about the continuing rush towards new technologies and their potential for increasing social inequality as too many people are left behind. The future, it turns out, is not always a shared space.
Val and Julie are a married couple—Val a teacher, Julie the office director for a long-term Congressman. They and their two children David and Sophie together are faced with a series of life-changing choices after the debut of a brain implant called a “Pilot”. Pilots increase people’s ability to focus, concentrate, multitask, and generally boost the ability of their brain to function. The small blue light that identifies the presence of a Pilot and shines from the side of people’s heads quickly becomes a signifier of the haves vs. the have nots (the people, like Val, who refuse a Pilot out of principle and/or suspicion, or those who, like Sophie, have brain conditions that make Pilot installation impossible). When high school student David makes the fateful decision to receive a Pilot, and then, to join the military for training in Pilot-enhanced maneuvers and tactics, he sets into motion the chain of events that make up most of the novel.
Pinsker chronicles expertly the various conflicts that can arise between people when technology and fears of technology divide them: Val and Julie are on opposing sides of the Pilot debate, as Julie embraces the new tech and the opportunities she thinks it offers. David becomes a poster child for Pilots, pitting him against the increasingly militant anti-Pilot activist Sophie. Perhaps the most intense debate in the book is an internal one, as David fights a lonely battle with the psychological side effects of his Pilot. David’s mental struggles are highly and powerfully reminiscent of the real-life struggles of veterans suffering from PTSD, and they add an extra emotional dimension here to Pinsker’s concern with people’s relationship to technology. References are made throughout the book to people without Pilots being passed over for jobs—resulting in de facto discrimination to which any member of a marginalized group today trying for a job or fair housing might recognize – and of course, the very visibility of Pilots means that the technological have-nots are publicly marked.
The mere existence of any technology is not a universal positive—we see it today in the digital divide that disadvantages so many people in the race for equal access to employment opportunities, vital information, and other resources. We see it in the political and social costs that social media bring with its promulgation of harmful and hateful propaganda. With any technology, there are always victims, there are always people left out, there are always inequalities. Pinsker does a marvelous job—as she does in everything she writes – here at painting a worrisome picture of social and familial stratification via the latest wondrous piece of tech. As she did in Song of a New Day, Pinsker presents the reader of We Are Satellites with a very realistic near-future embroiled in an all-too-plausible social upheaval. In both works, though, Pinsker finds a solution in people recognizing the importance of connections to one another. Indeed, we are all satellites, orbiting each other in a vital embrace that prevents us from spinning off alone into the dark.
“My Girlfriend was born on the train a week after her mother died.” (7)
A memorable opening sentence is a beautiful thing. It immediately forces the reader to sit up and take notice; it often sets the tone for the work that follows it; it signals what’s to come. In the case of the novella The Silence of the Wilting Skin (Pink Narcissus Press, 2020, $14.40) by Tlotlo Tsamaase, the opener announces entrance into a world where regular time and flow of events hold little sway. Surreality and shifting rule the day in Tsamaase’s narrative. Even one’s identity is unfixed in this world—no character, including the narrator, is given a proper name, nor is the African (assuming it IS in Africa) city in which the novella takes place. Characters are only identified by their relationship to the narrator and one another—the Girlfriend, Sister-In-Law, Brother-in-Law, Dreamskin Grandma, Stranger 1, Stranger 2. This descriptive choice gives the novella a layer of universality that contributes to its dreamlike air—after all, we all dream, and not one of us is a stranger to the particular weird logic we find in dreams.
And like a dream, Tsomaase’s novella isn’t easy to describe or summarize. Suffice it to say, she has given us here a passionate, vibrant cry against colonialism wrapped in hallucinatory and ethereal language. The narrator lives in a city haunted by its dead, whose spirits occupy a train in a decrepit station—a train that ferries its passengers into and away from the city, its origin point unknown beyond the dust and fog that mark the city limits. The train divides the city in two: the narrator lives in the poorer wards of one side where the Sun predominates, while in the District on the Other Side of the City the moon holds supreme. But those Others have a terrible, weakening effect on the narrator’s side of the tracks.
We live in the wards on the east side of the city. Our nights are always moonless for we have no moon…They said the sun was the reason for the texture of our skin and so we bathed in it. The citizens of the District on the Other Side of the City have a different color of blood…the moon tides their blood, it comes in waves into our land, packaged, and sells for high profits. They’d rather have our money than our lives. They believe that the train that divided our city in two is a myth, an unreal thing. It is invisible to them, except us…The people in our wards drink their blood like holy water hoping it will make them as beautiful as them. But the blood burns.29-30
Amid this state of affairs, the ever-sprawling District threatens to move into the rest of the city and tear down the train line that holds the city’s familial dead—an existential threat, as the narrator notes: “Our families represent a culture we will never get back.” (35) And as people and structures around the city start to disappear, the narrator finds herself losing her skin color and growing lighter and lighter. Dreams, of course, are allegories in which our subconscious minds interpret the events and concerns of our lives; likewise, Tsamaase’s dreamlike story of a divided city is an allegory for the parasitic evils of colonialism against native peoples. Colonialism is not always an overt invasion across borders, but often a more subtle process with quietly insidious effects that include the loss or warping of culture. The narrator becomes enmeshed in a surrealistic manifestation of that historical phenomenon. At harrowing speed, she is losing her history, her traditions, her family, her words, her image—losing it all to the rapid intrusion of an outside homogenizing Shadow that seeks to make everything like itself. As her Girlfriend says, “Whatever I eat is altered. Whatever my bones wear is altered. Whatever I see is altered. Not by my choice. I am tired of fighting this power around us, this power coming into our lungs, into our eyes and taking control.” (70) Tsamaase poignantly describes this all-encompassing struggle, that can only be overcome with the strength of the individual human heart and the ability to make one’s fate in the world.
Is it an alternate history? A secret history? A future history? A hallucination? A dream? A prophetic statement? The answer to all of these is “Yes, probably. Well, maybe. It depends who you’re asking”, when discussing Sesshu Foster’s and Arturo Romo’s singular ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines (City Lights Books, $17.95, 2020). It’s not every book that can plausibly appear to be many things at once, but Foster and Romo have made such a book here, and their endeavor is stunning in its creativity and heartening at its social justice-advocating core. Reality shifts in this book as if it had been written by Philip K. Dick or Steve Erickson, with shadowy conspiracies flown in via Thomas Pynchon.
The book is a collection of events, reports, photographs, and complementing/competing narratives that together chronicle the history, development, and end (and rebirth?) of a 20th century air transportation network designed to serve the people and escape the roads and routes laid down for them by government, by history, and by ruthless engines of US capital. The authors make it impossible to establish a straightforward timeline for the company, or even for its ultimate objective reality. And that’s deliberate—it reflects both the slipperiness of history and subjectivity of historical narrative as well as the never-ending attempts by the powerful to erase from the record the voices and struggles of the marginalized.
The sins of the powerful have great impact in whatever world(s) ELADATL takes place in—Los Angeles and Southern California (and by extension, the US) are described again and again in terms of ruin and neglect. This is made manifest most visibly in descriptions of massive gyres of trash borne into the air and now dotting the stratosphere, but presented in more subtle ways as well, such as noting that ELADATL creates airship construction facilities and stations by identifying and secretly reworking endless numbers of abandoned or derelict factories and airport hangars whose emptiness is a symptom of the ongoing economic decay of late-stage capitalist America. The agents of the line work to build something new in the ruins of what the powerful have destroyed in their greed and excess, and those efforts are profoundly human in their determination and compassion. But competing motives for this work denote not only the ideological factionalism inside every organization, including ELADATL, but the ongoing tension between the truth of our existence and the *perception* of that existence. This tension is something that we see not only as part of the basic nature of the book, but in American political and social life today. What IS truth? Is it what we make it to be, or tell others that it is, or is there an objectivity, a solidity, to truth?
…rehabbing and renovating the abandoned plants so they could be used to produce either a movie of a dirigible or the actual aircraft itself (depending on whether you spoke to Swirling or to Jose or Ericka, or whichever ELADATL faction you might speak with, though you didn’t have to worry about getting into a face-to-face argument, because the factions hardly communicated except by Internet static, flinging little insults and wannabe cutting remarks like sparks spitting off a chain dragging behind a junk truck on a 3 a.m. street). Either the movie about dirigibles that the Fictive faction insisted would be the necessary first step aimed to cure ELADATL’s financial ills, or the clandestine dirigibles proposed by the Real World faction, which they insisted were necessary to restructure the entire transportation grid of California, which would transform the entire collapsing once-dominant US economy (with a blockbuster summer dirigible movie just a spin-off and product tie-in, its profit earmarked for more worthwhile, maximalist goals). Of course, the movie faction insisted that they themselves were the realists, while the other faction was a bunch of idealists, voluntarists, and adventurists, total lunatics untethered to reality. The rejoinder from the pilots flying actual clandestine dirigibles through the unlicensed air spaces of night was that they were the real realists, and the movie faction was just a bunch of armchair fantasists, artists, and hipsters dedicated to the idea (but not the practice) of actual lighter-than-air flight.50
ELADATL is far from the first example of California lit to describe the place as a battleground of Hollywood fantasy vs. hard reality, but it is one of the more unusual of its kind, certainly.
With ELADATL, Foster and Romo have given readers a thoughtful, quirky, and multilayered look at an America that may or may not approaching its end (and how we record and report its history), and how the eternal human dream of flight might signal less inevitable progress and more a method of surviving and thriving in a decaying and unjust world. Few novels that I’ve read lately have been more thought-provoking, as well as more creative in their construction.
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.