Book Review: A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams (2019)

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

Filled with peoples, worlds, futures, and acts of rebellion that you won’t soon forget.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against a variety of marginalized groups.)

You are the amen of my family, and I am the in the beginning of yours. This story is the prayer, or one of them. This story says you can live through anything and that when it is time to go, when the entire world goes dark, then you go together, holding on to one another’s hands, and you whisper the memory of birds and bees and the names of those you loved. When it is not time to go, though, this story says you rise.

– “Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Wall to keep the empire safe: strrrrrong empire, empire with mightiest military in the world, empire made of blood and theft, human and land. Before the wall was even finished the empire began to strip rights, silence certain people, keep others sparking in their skins of distrust. But most of the inhabitants paid attention to other things, shiny things, scandals. It would pass, hadn’t it always? White folks had short memories.

– “The Wall” by Lizz Huerta

Y’all, the first baby born to the Federation of Free Peoples was gonna be one incredible brown-ass baby.

– “O.1” by Gabby Rivera

— 4.5 stars —

Seanan McGuire is an insta-read for me – but, even without her name attached to this project, A People’s Future of the United States is still a book I would have pounced on. With its riff on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, plethora of diverse contributors, and focus on futures that might be – at a time when the present is so damn depressing – there’s no way I could pass it up. And, rather than offer an escape from the now, the stories here challenge the reader to follow this thread to its possible conclusions; to imagine what this world could become, for better or worse; and to rise up, resist, and perhaps steer it to a better, more humane place.

My main issue with anthologies is that they tend to be uneven – but A People’s History of the United States is as close to uniformly awesome as you can get without being pure perfection. There are a few stories that I just found okay, and one that I skipped altogether. But most of the rest? Took my breath away.

For whatever reason (the first bit of the synopsis maybe?), I came to the table expecting visions of future utopias: suggestions for how we can fix this broken planet we call home. And while there are a few budding socialist Edens to be found here – Hugh Howey’s “No Algorithms in the World” springs to mind – most are of the dystopian variety. And that’s both okay and, let’s be honest, totally realistic. The good thing is that, within every story lurks a glimmer of hope. Sometimes it’s tenuous and fragile, but it’s there, waiting to be nurtured into fruition. My heart, you guys? Swelled so much that it felt fit to burst clear out of my chest. Some of these yarns are that darn shiny.

There are way too many to discuss them all, but here goes.

“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley is as strange as it is lovely. Half the time I was not entirely sure what I was reading, but I was sure I wanted more. In this far-off future dystopia, words are power (though “Knowledge [isn’t] enough.”), a power that’s been chained by the powers that be. Paper is outlawed, so Librarians like the Needle tattoo the stories of the world on their very skin: “manuscripts from authors like Octavia the Empress and Ursula Major.” (Tell me you didn’t feel those chills.) In the end – or the beginning, rather – these stories become a superpower of sorts, smoke let loose on the battleground. The first of many revolutions.

Sam J. Miller explores “the place of sex in a broader strategy of political resistance” in “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right.” Forced to seek anonymous, illicit sex in back alleys and swampy underpasses (Homosexuality? Illegal. Along with a laundry list of other identities and interests.), Caul finds himself in a parallel world at the moment of orgasm: “A place where what we do matters.” And so this tool of the state – he who installs phone cloners up and down the streets of NY, to help the government better surveil its residents – comes to realize that he can be used to dismantle it. (And tell me your heart didn’t sink down into the depths of your belly the day that Prince became contraband.)

In “Riverbed,” Omar El Akkad revisits the site of a mass human rights abuse on its fiftieth anniversary. After a group of suicide bombers attacked a US sporting event with massive casualties, Khadija Singh’s family was rounded up and taken to a detention center, ‘for their own protection.’ (Never mind that they are Sikh, and not Muslim. In her father’s words, Americans are “brittle with privilege.”) It was only after he escaped that her brother was murdered. On the eve of the unveiling of a gaudy new museum to ‘commemorate’ the tragedy, Dr. Singh returns to the property to retrieve her brother’s meager belongings, so that no part of him might remain in the place of his captivity.

Justina Ireland’s “Calendar Girls” is a biting look at a world in which contraception, made illegal (while boner pills thrive!), is dealt on street corners like cocaine or heroin. After being orphaned by a forced pregnancy that killed her mom, Alyssa goes to work for the Matriarchs, selling condoms to young women and her local patrolman (already father of nine) alike. There’s an arrest, and a shakedown involving a hypocritical Senator (founder of the Abstinence League!) who wants an abortion for his pregnant, unwed teen daughter (See: ‘The only moral abortion is my abortion.’), and a double-cross to save the day.

Also nestled under the “utopia” umbrella is “O.1” by Gabby Rivera, in which a plague called IMBALANCE (“a sentient bacterium that preyed on white-supremacist greed”) killed the 1% and left most of the rest of the population sterile. That is, until a couple named Mala and Orion Lafayette-Santana manage to conceive Baby 0.1 – and the personal quickly becomes the object of public consumption as the the Federation of Free Peoples rallies around this new life. When Mala, Orion, and their birth worker Deviana Ortiz go missing from their home in North Philly, panic – and a massive manhunt – ensues. Told from their alternating perspectives, “O.1” is a story of hope and resilience. This might be the only time I’ve wished for biological warfare, okay. Team Imbalance all the way.

N. K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is simply brilliant: I mean, drug-sniffing, made-that-way racist dragons, sated with collard greens and hot sauce, domesticated with love and affection, and then turned against their (common) oppressors? What’s not to love about that?

Ditto: the aforementioned “No Algorithms in the World,” in which Hugh Howey imagines what society with a guaranteed basic income might look like, from both sides of the generational divide.

In “The Referendum,” Lesley Nneka Arimah reminds us why we should always listen to black women.

And Tananarive Due’s “Attachment Disorder” is an epic tale distilled into short story form that will leave you wanting more.

I’m certain I’m overlooking a few favorites, but this is a pretty good start. If you like smart speculative fiction, told by a diverse group of voices, with a strong foundation in the here and now, A People’s Future of the United States is a slam dunk.

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Book Review: Children of the New World: Stories, Alexander Weinstein (2016)

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

“a comeback story without a comeback”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Goodreads.)

We were like babies. Like Adam and Eve, some said. We reached out toward one another to see how skin felt; we let our neighbors’ hands run across our arms. In this world, we seemed to understand, we were free to experience a physical connection that we’d always longed for in the real world but had never been able to achieve. Who can blame us for being reckless?

(“Children of the New World”)

Publicly, we sold memories under Quimbly, Barrett & Woods, but when it was just the three of us, working late into the night, we thought of ourselves as mapmakers. […] Here was the ocean, here the ships, here the hotel, here the path that led to town, here the street vendors, here the memories of children we never had and parents much better than the ones we did. And far out there was the edge of the world.

(“The Cartographers”)

It’s not often that I’m so truly and hopelessly blown away by a collection of short stories. Anthologies with multiple contributors are almost always a little choppy, and even those written by a single author tend to be a mixed bag. But Alexander Weinstein? He works some serious magic in Children of the New World.

The thirteen stories found within these pages are beautiful, imaginative, and deeply unsettling. Together, they create a portrait of a future beholden to technology: where consumers willingly and happily abandon memories based on fact in favor kinder, gentler fictions; where humans rarely leave the virtual world, let alone their houses; where people fornicate like mad but reproduce through cloning – and sometimes even programming. Where lovers can peel back all their layers – metaphorically and literally – and grant their partners access to every fleeting thought, emotion, and memory. Where even the apocalypse is powerless to break the hold that mere things – Lego toys and Kitchenaid mixers – exert over us.

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DNF Review: Night of the Animals, Bill Broun (2016)

Friday, July 15th, 2016

 

In this imaginative debut, the tale of Noah’s Ark is brilliantly recast as a story of fate and family, set in a near-future London.

Over the course of a single night in 2052, a homeless man named Cuthbert Handley sets out on an astonishing quest: to release the animals of the London Zoo. As a young boy, Cuthbert’s grandmother had told him he inherited a magical ability to communicate with the animal world—a gift she called the Wonderments. Ever since his older brother’s death in childhood, Cuthbert has heard voices. These maddening whispers must be the Wonderments, he believes, and recently they have promised to reunite him with his lost brother and bring about the coming of a Lord of Animals . . . if he fulfills this curious request.

Cuthbert flickers in and out of awareness throughout his desperate pursuit. But his grand plan is not the only thing that threatens to disturb the collective unease of the city. Around him is greater turmoil, as the rest of the world anxiously anticipates the rise of a suicide cult set on destroying the world’s animals along with themselves. Meanwhile, Cuthbert doggedly roams the zoo, cutting open the enclosures, while pressing the animals for information about his brother.

Just as this unlikely yet loveable hero begins to release the animals, the cult’s members flood the city’s streets. Has Cuthbert succeeded in harnessing the power of the Wonderments, or has he only added to the chaos—and sealed these innocent animals’ fates? Night of the Animals is an enchanting and inventive tale that explores the boundaries of reality, the ghosts of love and trauma, and the power of redemption.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

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Book Review: The Many Selves of Katherine North, Emma Geen (2016)

Friday, July 8th, 2016

How do you say “AMAZING!!!” in bottlenose dolphin?

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

One. Mustn’t trust humans too much.
Two. I know what they can be like.
Three. I was one once—

How can they sell Phenomenautism as image and experience? How can they sell it at all? A Ressy isn’t a consumable. Phenomenautism is meant to consume you.

Buckley always said that reading is the closest an ex-phenomenaut can get to wearing another skin.

The year is 2050, or close enough, and while humans aren’t yet locomoting via our own personal jet packs, we have developed all sorts of cool technology. Chief among them? Phenomenautism, which involves projecting one’s consciousness, using a neural interface, into the bodies of other animals.

At just nineteen years old, Katherine “Kit” North is the longest projecting phenomenaut in the field, with seven years under her belt. She was recruited to join ShenCorp – whose founder, Professor Shen, all but invented phenomenautism – when she was a kid. Kit’s Mum was a zoologist and her father, a wildlife photographer, so an affinity for our nonhuman kin runs in the blood. Kit works in the Research division, inhabiting the bodies of nonhuman animals to aid outside companies and nonprofits with their research; for example, as a fox Kit helped track the local population for a cub study orchestrated by the Fox Research Centre. She’s been a bee, a whale, a polar bear, an elephant, a seal, a mouse, a spider, a octopus, a tiger, and a bat, not to various species of birds. Very rarely does she get to be herself – although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nor is she quite sure what that means anymore.

ShenCorp is the only company to employ children exclusively, owing to their superior brain plasticity, which aids in adapting to the new bodies (“Ressies”) they inhabit during jumps. As Kit watches her friends and peers disappear, one by one – let go for poor performance – she worries for her own future. When she’s hit by a car inRessy – destroying the body and ending her study prematurely – termination seems imminent. Yet instead of a pink slip, her boss offers her a promotion, of sorts: to the new Tourism division, where the “animal experience” is sold to regular folks – for a hefty sum, natch. Kit finds the idea of Consumer Phenomenautism repugnant … yet not quite as bad as giving jumping up altogether. Kit accepts, unwittingly stumbling into a corporate conspiracy that runs far deeper that she imagined.

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Book Review: Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, Peter Öberg, ed. (2015)

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

A Mostly-Solid Batch of Swedish Speculative Fiction with a Few Standouts

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape and violence.)

Short story collections are always a little tricky to rate, especially when there are a number of different contributors. In Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, there are exactly twenty-six. The unifying factor? All are Swedish authors, and the anthology has a speculative fiction/scifi/fantastical bent. Keeping with the title, most of the contributions are science fiction, or at least science fiction-y, with robots and AI figuring into many of the plots. As promised, steampunk horses (in an old timey Western setting, no less!) and sassy goblins also make an appearance.

The result is a mostly-solid mix of speculative fiction, though the odd fantasy/fantastical stories felt a bit out of place and disrupted the overall feel of the collection. As usually happens with anthologies, I enjoyed some stories more than others; there are a few that I absolutely fell in love with, and will no doubt revisit again in the future (“The Rats” in particular) and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, I DNF’ed two of the tales (“Melody of the Yellow Bard,” which is way too wordy and could benefit from a more ruthless round of editing; and “The Philosopher’s Stone,” which seems like a perfectly fine story but just wasn’t for me).

Many of the pieces fall somewhere in the middle, with quite a few 3- and 4-star ratings, and a smattering of 2-stars.

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Book Review: The Abyss: A Journey with Jack the Ripper, David Ruffle (2013)

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Speculative Fiction for the Ripperology Set

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program.)

A quirky little novella, The Abyss: A Journey with Jack the Ripper imagines the birth and development of infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. Born into a staunchly religious household, only child James is routinely abused by his traveling lay-preacher father and arguably sadistic mother. When mum dies in her sleep (supposedly of natural circumstances – but what of her bloodshot eyes?), James is sent to live with his Uncle George and Aunt Katherine in Surrey. After several peaceful years in this household, a now sixteen-year-old James discovers that Katherine is cheating on her husband. His reaction? He blackmails her into buying his silence with sex, and then arranges for his uncle to accidentally walk in on one of her trysts anyhow. An enraged George murders Katherine, and James is unleashed on the world.

The man who would eventually come to be known variously as “Jack the Ripper,” “the Whitechapel Murderer,” and “Leather Apron” finds his way to the East End of London, where he takes on a series of menial jobs, many of them involving the slaughter and butchering of animals. Unhappy, poor, and a perpetual underachiever, he begins to take out his aggression and low self-esteem (to say nothing of his misogyny) on the local population of sex workers.

Told in the third person, James’s story is interspersed with chapters written from the viewpoints of his “canon” victims: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly. I appreciate this approach, since it helps to humanize and give voice to women who are so often overlooked (or worse, objectified and demonized). This is somewhat undercut, though, but the chapter titles, which refer to the women by number: one through five, corresponding to her sequence in Jack the Ripper’s killing spree.

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