New Suns 2: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color
Nisi Shawl, ed.
Solaris, March 14, 2023, 352 pgs
Back in 2019 I reviewed the first New Suns anthology, calling it “a celebration of people of color.” Editor Nisi Shawl has returned to this purpose with a second installment: New Suns 2. That first book won Locus, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, Ignyte, and Brave New Words awards. It was also one of my Locus Magazine “Staff Picks”—in other words, one of my favorite books of that year. The easiest way to sum up Book Two: Shawl has done it again!
Where the first book had no explicit theme, this one does: “Many things come in twos: dualities, binaries, halves, and alternates. Twos are found throughout New Suns 2, in eighteen science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories revealing daring futures, hidden pasts, and present-day worlds filled with unmapped wonders.” Each author approaches the theme in their own way, which makes the journey through the book an interesting one, revealing how differently some of the most creative people envision, interpret, or apply an idea. At the same time, many of the authors in this book had pieces in the first book, which lends a sense of cohesion to the two books as installments in a series, and which creates a continuation of vibe. I’ll talk about a few of the standout stories and encourage you to pick up New Suns 2 and discover the rest.
“Ocasta” by Daniel H. Wilson opens with techspeak and physics theory. Well, to be precise, it opens with a Maya Angelou quote about the “untold story,” then applies quantum theory to the quote: “Speaking from a quantum mechanics perspective, untold stories never happen. The superposition will not collapse until it is observed.” The story goes from there into the techspeak—including a patent application. But then the story slides into powerful images, juxtaposed by narrative plot, which creates a subtle but important message, one which is poignant and felt as much as it is understood. Just as quickly, Wilson switches to a pointed but beautifully written section, demonstrating nothing less than a mastery of language. Pain rendered poetry and brought to an interesting scale. If this sounds disjointed, it’s not. Wilson fits the pieces together perfectly, giving shape to the generation and development of an artificial intelligence named Ocasta. On the one hand “Ocasta” is based on the idea that reality only happens if it’s observed; that things don’t get going until observed. On the other, the narrative is a deep meditation on the meaning of humans as a species, asking, “What is the value of the sum of all human knowledge?” It also raises the question of who this supposed “observer” could be, and the fact that perhaps the observer doesn’t need to be human. Finally, I see this as a tale of otherness and loneliness, and what it is to be an observer—on the outside of everything—especially one that is pretty much unique. Shocking at times, thoughtful, powerful.
Geetanjali Vandemark’s “Neti-Neti” is a well-told and interesting story about reincarnation in the hands of the criminal. In this case, quick and directed reincarnation can happen at the hands of a monk. The worldbuilding is vivid and the piece itself is pleasantly grim. Panna is one such monk, but she is far from pure. Worse, Panna is trapped in the terrible circumstances of her life. As she tries to right a wrong, she also has to navigate a corrupt world, one where the local slum lord owns everyone around her, and rules with a greedy fist. She also has to navigate her own conflicting drives. As engaging as the story is for me—and I thought it was awesome!—I suspect there are even more layers of subtext that readers familiar with the details of the culture will enjoy.
I bounced hard off Minsoo Kang’s story in the first New Suns, but also noted that perhaps I wasn’t the reader for that particular piece, and that other readers might find it to be brilliant. Here Minsoo Kang offers “Before the Glory of Their Majesties” and I am definitely the reader for this one. Fans of the darker elements of Game of Thrones and similar will be smitten within a few paragraphs. And after a few pages, they will be hungry for a series set in this macabre world. Many authors attempt to write captivating dark high fantasy, but so often it reads as generic or derivative. Kang makes putting together a captivating story look easy. And then, just when you think, “Damn, this is good, I wonder where it’s all going,” Kang turns everything on its head. What follows? I don’t even want to tell you. But it’s essential reading for writers engaged in the act of telling stories, as well as for readers who casually chew through book after book, story after story. It’s unexpected and kind of breathtaking, and I don’t want to spoil it for you any more than that.
Speaking of “breathtaking,” Nghi Vo’s “Silk and Cotton and Linen and Blood” is just that. Vo paints scenes wonderfully. She begins by imbuing the moment with immersive details as well as pressing tension, then sews in flashes of color which create the sense of a complex and interesting world. Vo also makes great narrative choices, keeping the read full of unexpected moments, directions, and decisions, all of which still feel right for the story, never contrived or forced. Even her choices of what to focus on and when, if closely examined, reveal storytelling genius: clothes that resist the blade, noticed by an invader in the act of killing the lord, setting important things in motion and creating room for a different kind of hero. Who tells the story, what the focal point is, and where it all goes are among the great choices here, rendering everything fresh and fascinating. Some of the choices also blend in layers of depth and subtext—for readers who want to look closely. A number of wonderful lines and phrases make occasional treats for those of us who enjoy language itself. Even better, Vo is a master at bringing various story elements together at the end, like a seamstress crafting something beautiful from a batch of bright swatches. Yes, folks, this is a fantastic story.
In Christopher Caldwell’s story “Counting Her Petals,” he uses descriptive details with expertise, which lends nuance and realness to everything. The story opens with effective tension and fear, and folds in interesting characters and world building from there. It’s one of those narratives where the author decides to not tell the reader what’s going on, which can often be a frustrating approach. But here it works because the author gives us so much to be involved in and enjoy, which also serves to instill faith that the read will be well worth following along. Among what there is to “be involved in and enjoy” is fantastic dialogue and a wonderfully sketched relationship. There’s also a kind of secondary story which is a brilliantly sparkling little fable in its own right. The final reveal of the central narrative is a familiar premise, but it’s reinvigorated and given more weight than many other versions by the context of this particular story; not to mention the way the author blends world building elements, which gives these tropes a fine polish. By the time you get to the end, yes, the read was well worth it indeed. Even the final line is clever, but not just for cleverness’s sake—it also carries the weight of the themes of the piece. Simply stated: this a damn good story.
I mentioned at the top that book one, ostensibly, didn’t have a theme. But the theme might be something like “cool stories by people of color.” Can’t that be a theme? And if it is, then the theme is continued in book two. And if we want to be a bit pickier about what a word like “theme” means, we might point to the fact that many of the stories in book one, either overtly or slyly, deal with identity, suggesting that there could potentially be an accidental theme along those lines; one which is also continued in this book. Part of the fun of book two for some readers will be in identifying and thinking about the interpretation of the explicit theme. For example, in Caldwell’s story, there are a number of ways the theme is represented, including the structure. But for folks who just want to read a bunch of really great stories, Nisi Shawl has got you. In fact, they got you twice now. Go get this book and enjoy it, on whatever level suits you. And if you didn’t get the first book? It’s not required, by any means, but you might want to take the opportunity to correct the oversight and pick that one up as well.
Spread the word!