Book Review: Diverse Energies, Tobias S. Buckell and Joe Monti, eds. (2012)

February 9th, 2015 10:56 am by Kelly Garbato

A Strong Collection of Diverse Dystopian Stories

four out of five stars

No one can doubt that the wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed, but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men. No one can doubt that cooperation in the pursuit of knowledge must lead to the freedom of the mind and freedom of the soul.

– President John F. Kennedy, from a speech at University of California, March 23, 1962

Maybe your claim is that Dungeons & Dragons is based on a fantasy feudal Europe? Maybe your game is, but the whole point is that you can make whatever game you want; a diverse cast in your illustration just encourages that. And for that matter, are you seriously telling me that you think having a person with darker skin is somehow more of a strain on your suspension of disbelief than…a lizard lady or a devil dude?

– Mordicai Knode, writing for Tor.com, April 11, 2012

Inspired by online discussions of diversity in literature (see, e.g. RaceFail 2009), Joe Monti and Tobias S. Buckell set out to create a diverse anthology of dystopian stories that feature people of color and LGBTQ protagonists: “not a brick thrown at a window, [but] the continued paving of a path” – a path toward stories that reflect the entire spectrum of the human experience. Diverse Energies is a wonderful step in this direction – and yet, six years later, the continuing debate about representation in books, movies, video games, and other forms of media (most recently, via the We Need Diverse Books campaign) underscores the fact that there’s so much work yet to be done.

Featuring original and “rediscovered” stories by the likes of Ellen Oh, Malinda Lo, Ken Liu, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ursula K. Le Guin, Diverse Energies is a strong collection of dystopian stories that center on POC and LGBTQ protagonists, many of them written by authors of color and/or gay/lesbian authors. Every single story features at least one non-white protagonist (many of the casts are overwhelming non-white), with a variety of nations and ethnicities represented. Settings range from futuristic, war-torn Japan to (seemingly) present-day China, and the tunnels that run underneath Chinatown in New York City. Additionally, several stories also feature gay and lesbian romances, both old (“Next Door”) and newly blossoming (“Good Girl”).

Like most anthologies, Diverse Energies is a bit of a mixed bag; but even my least favorite stories of the bunch earned 3/5 stars. Overall, it’s a fairly strong collection, with a few especially shiny gems sprinkled throughout. Many (though not all) of the stories have a YA vibe to them, but just like straight-up YA, they’re suitable for teenage and adult readers alike.

“The Last Day” by Ellen Oh – Set in a distant future in which a massive world war ended with the emergence of two competing superpowers, the Emperor of the East attempts to conceal the existence of a powerful bomb – afraid that his citizens would stop fighting the President of the West if news got out. “The Last Day” follows two boys as they traverse their city, Urakami, on its last day before it’s bombed by the West – and any survivors, massacred by the Emperor. 3/5 stars.

“Freshee’s Frogurt” by Daniel H. Wilson – Presented in an interview format, the lone survivor of a robot attack (an allegedly “malfunctioning” domestic robot) offers a glimpse of what’s to come in just nine short months, with the advent of Zero Hour. (I assume this story ties into Wilson’s Robopocalypse series, which is in my TBR list.) 3/5 stars (but maybe just because I haven’t yet gotten to Robopocalypse).

“Uncertainty Principle” by K. Tempest Bradford – Throughout most of her short life, Iliana’s reality shifts in ways both large and small. But it’s only when a change claims a much-needed president (Keith Ellison’s daughter Amirah, in a really cool and timely cameo) – followed by her own parents – that Iliana vows to find out who’s changing history, and why. While the multiple time lines are a bit confusing at times, I really enjoyed the quirkiness and overt social justice aspects of the story. 5/5 stars.

“Pattern Recognition” by Ken Liu – David is one of many kids “enrolled” in the Volpe Ness School, where the students are put to work solving puzzles and finding patterns. Run by authoritarian Dr. Gau (who fancies himself a philanthropist), the children are taught that the Outside is a ruined wasteland, populated by the wicked and the sinful; as such, all artifacts from the days before are strictly prohibited, as is social interaction between the sexes (except at Sunday worship). When David steals a phone from an Outsider in order to impress Helen (“They had looked up kiss a long time ago, and tonight the reading came in handy.”), he unwittingly establishes contact with the outside world, and discovers that his whole life has been a lie. 4/5 stars.

“Gods of the Dimming Light” by Greg van Eekhout – Edward responds to an advertisement for the medical research company NorseCODE – only to find out that he, as a descendant of Odin, is destined to play a role in the world’s final days, as it ends “not with a bang, but with a sniffle.” Nevermind that he’s an atheist, and his parents hail not from Scandinavia, but from Indonesia. 4/5 stars.

“Next Door” by Rahul Kanakia – In this dystopian future, humans are divided into Strangers and Squatters. The ultimate “haves,” Strangers are so addicted to their tech that it’s the real world which seems an illusion. Most of them don’t even notice the Squatters living in their basements, garages, even homes. Aakash and Victor are a couple on the hunt for their own squat. When they become entangle with Joel – the son of the man who owns Aakash’s family’s current squat and a futuristic hipster who restores historical artifacts for the Squatters, the inheritors of human culture, but for whom he has little respect as individuals – they hit the motherload, only to have it taken away once again. In this ‘verse, the rich literally can’t see the poor, making it a rather handy allegory for today’s widening poverty gap. 4/5 stars.

“Good Girl” by Malina Lo – If you enjoyed Ash or Huntress, you’re sure to love this short story by the incomparable Malida Lo. Set in New York City, Lo imagines a society in which the government enforces racial purity through the Health Ministry, which approves marriages and green-lights (or not) reproduction. Women who become pregnant without approval may be sterilized – unless they’re rich enough to pay off a government official or two. Asian is the ideal, while biracial citizens are driven underground to live as “Tunnel Mutts,” performing the dirty, unsavory jobs rejected by “pure bloods.” When her older brother Kit disappears, Nix – a biracial lesbian passing as pure (and presumably straight) – enlists the help of “Tunnel Mutt” Nix to help find him. The two fall for each other, but their relationship is doomed from the start. 5/5 stars.

“A Pocket Full of Dharma” by Paolo Bacigalupi – When a mysterious Tibetan hires beggar boy Wang Jun to deliver a data cube to an even more mysterious person in white gloves, “Soldier Wang” finds himself caught in the middle of a dangerous political conspiracy – for the data cube, you see, contains the consciousness of the 19th Dalai Lama. 3/5 stars. The organic city called Huojianzhu (reminiscent of the living ships in Lilith’s Brood) really steals the show.

“Blue Skies” by Cindy Pon – A young man going by the name “Dark Horse” kidnaps a wealthy you girl for ransom so that he can infiltrate the suited elite and set the world right again. What he doesn’t expect is to find a kindred soul hidden beneath all that glass and latex. 5/5 stars.

“What Arms to Hold Us” by Rajan Khanna – Imprisoned in a primosite mine, Ravi is recruited by one of his bosses to assassinate the Archmagus, using his mining robot gollie as a weapon. On the verge of murder, Ravi realizes with a start that Magus Sharpe never mentioned what would become of him and the other boys. How can he trust Sharpe when he’s part of the very system that enslaves, tortures, and discards children by the thousands?

“Solitude” by Ursula K. Le Guin – An intergalactic ethnologist, “mother” chose to settle on the planet Eleven-Soro to conduct field research – but only after three First Observers failed to communicate with the tight-lipped natives, whose beliefs that most human relationships are unnatural are reflected in their customs and behaviors. However, mom came armed with a secret weapon that the Observers were lacking: her two children, Borny and Ren, who were able to cross certain cultural boundaries that constrain the adults of the culture (such as asking direct questions, or entering another person’s home). After seven years on the planet – one of which Ren’s brother Borny spent living in exile in the Territories, joining a boy gang and proving his manhood – mom and Borny wish to leave, against Ren’s wishes. Having lived on Eleven-Soro for more than half her twelve years, Ren languishes on the ship, wanting nothing more than to go home, to the human solitude of her adopted planet. 5/5 stars.

I can’t say enough good things about “Solitude”; riveting, thought-provoking, and melancholy, it had me at the edge of my seat. Between library sales and Bookmooch, I’ve managed to acquire quite a few books by Le Guin over the past few years; “Solitude” has definitely pushed them to the top of my to-read pile.

Recommended for: Fans of grim, introspective, and/or socially conscious SF dystopias; readers who are sick of falling in love with a story, only to realize halfway through that it lacks more than a token female/POC/LGBTQ/otherwise diverse character (if that); people who are tired of scouring books for diverse characters and would rather just sit back and enjoy the show, diversity being assured at the outset.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! Every single story features at least one character of color, with the majority of the casts being overwhelmingly, refreshingly non-white. There are a range of nations, cultures, and ethnicities represented here. Additionally, several of the stories feature gay or lesbian protagonists, couples, and/or romances. Many of the contributors are POC and/or LGBTQ. See my review for more.

 

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