Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Book Reviews: December 2019

Riot Baby
Tochi Onyebuchi
Hardcover / Ebbook
ISBN: 978-1250214751
Tor.com Publishing, January 2020, 176 pgs

Riot Baby dunks the reader into the story with a scene on a school bus where gangbangers board to put rowdy schoolchildren in their place. Tension and mood established, with the sense of increased violence waiting just under the surface, the story shifts slightly to focus on Ella’s “Thing” (her special ability) and the circumstances of her younger brother Kev’s birth during the Watts riots of 1965. Born at a time of racial strife and chaos, while Ella is the one with powers, Kev is the one living under a vaguely ominous prophecy.

There are no one-dimensional heroes and villains here. Don’t look for a Black Supergirl narrative; far from it. Characters are complex, grounded in the real, sometimes funny and other times terrifying. The intensity of the setting is limned by street humor and warmth in difficult times, uplifting key moments and allowing the reader to breath when needed; but also demonstrating something too often overlooked in the casual glance afforded by many narratives which acknowledge Black ghetto life: People are complicated, they are not stereotypes.

The bulk of the story centers on Kev as he grows up. He is intelligent as a child, full of promise, but susceptible to the horrors and temptations of ghetto life. His sister, Ella, is also growing, and as she grows, she becomes more powerful. They must negotiate their fragile relationship with each other and with their mother, who seems to seek to stifle Ella, all while the potential for Ella to accidentally hurt everyone around her increases.

This book is as much about communities as it is about the main characters. It’s related in flashes of moments and lives, jumping from scene to scene, time to time, which creates opportunities to paint pictures of the people usually ignored by typical superhero stories. In other words, it lends quick strokes of depth and character to folks who are usually disposable side characters.

Arguably, the “real hero” is the mom. Resilient, responsible, a real warrior at heart. Her place in the narrative proposes a subtle underlying thematic element: Real heroes are ordinary people, living ordinary lives, trying their hardest to do good and make life work for the people they love. Sometimes those people are extraordinary in some way (often in ways which are not good); and sometimes those relationships are fraught.

Besides a perhaps expected but skillful and sharp commentary on race and class, there is a particularly cunning polemic against prison systems, specifically around the damage they do to the psyches of those who pass through them, as well as the damage they do to the cultures which keep those systems intact. There are also notes on the casual cruelty of the medical system, as well as a brilliant SFnal thought piece on racially motivated police abuses. None of this is presented as preachy or as anything other than story; it reads more as the parts of the story you might not have heard, the things the news channels neglected to mention, but things which are nonetheless real. All told, this makes it an excellent exercise in anger and observation.

The plot itself wanders. Sometimes it feels like nothing is happening. Sometimes things happen and seem random. Characters are often plopped into situations, or the things they do don’t seem to really determine the plot in a meaningful “causality chain” kind of way. But never mind all that. This would make me put most books down, but the storytelling here is so compelling, right from page one, that I just don’t care. Additionally, it all makes more sense at the end, and the end is a great climax to the entire piece.

Riot Baby is a short, stunning book, one which most writers could not pull off, and one which I urge you to read with an open heart and a thoughtful mood.

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories
Ken Liu
Harcover/ Ebook
ISBN: 978-1982134037
Gallery/Saga Press, February 2020, 432 pgs

While Ken Liu’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, came out in 2015 from Saga Press, and despite Liu’s having contributed fiction to the Star Wars canon in 2017, he is perhaps better known for his award-winning short fiction. His first short story publication was “Carthaginian Rose” in 2002, in Orson Scott Card and Keith Olexa’s anthology Empire of Dreams and Miracles. But it was “The Paper Menagerie,” first appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction March/April 2011, that became the first work of fiction to win all three major SFF awards: the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the World Fantasy Award. Since then, his prodigious body of work—books, too, but especially his short fiction—has earned a mess of accolades and nominations, including, most recently, the 2017 Locus Award for best collection for The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (notably, a year in which his name appeared as a finalist in four other Locus Awards categories; and in which the collection landed a World Fantasy Award nomination).

All of that is to say The Hidden Girl and Other Stories comes with high expectations. Liu says on his site, “. . . unlike The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, the selection here will be much more guided by my own personal taste, including some of my newest work, a never-before-published novelette, as well as an excerpt from the next Dandelion Dynasty novel.” A glance at the copyright page speaks to Liu’s popularity across a spectrum of editorial tastes: pieces are pulled from anthologies and magazines from expected genre sources such as Lightspeed and Clarkesworld as well as more surprising venues such as Slate and TRSF (a special publication of MIT’s Technology Review). The earliest are from 2011. Assuming the selection won’t change by the time publication happens, more than half of the nineteen pieces on offer come from before 2015.

As can be expected of any collection or anthology, not every story spoke to me. “The Paper Menagerie” had me sobbing and trembling, and the pieces here didn’t have that degree of impact. Nonetheless, the skill with which a story can be constructed is clearly demonstrated, on a level where this book could be used in classes teaching creative writing. Every narrative is intelligent and thoughtful, and many of them end up in emotionally resonant places. Some stories linger after reading, gently urging discussion or deeper consideration. A few such favorites follow:

Opener “Ghost Days,” originally published in Lightspeed in 2013, is deliberate, carefully narrated, and thought provoking. It’s an oddly (but mathematically, if I’m not mistaken) structured tale, which shows a strange object through three vastly different time periods. It’s layered with complex thoughts around the immigrant experience and colonialism, revealed through the relationships of different individuals, and it’s gently powerful.

“The Reborn,” from Tor.com in 2014, is an unsettling, post alien invasion piece. A man intimately involved with an alien named Kai discovers that all may not be as it seems. He must decide if he should search for a mystery that may not exist—a search which would be a betrayal of his lover—and face the possibility that the being he loves may not be so benevolent after all; or capture and punish the people who may be leading him astray. This one starts out weird (used as a positive here) and gets deeper and more interesting as it goes. Memory, loss, vengeance, pain, trauma, and more, including the nature of personality, are all explored in a narrative that is somehow smooth and uncluttered, despite being dense with questions and meaning.

“Staying Behind” is a cold-hearted exploration of the post-singularity world. In this case (and in the case of many stories in the collection), “the singularity” refers to the end of life on Earth as we know it by way of most of humanity uploading their consciousnesses into a mega-computer. The story follows a family, the “left behind,” as they try to survive among the remains of civilization. Friends and family attempt to convince them to upload as well, but the father stands by his belief that uploading is murder, and that what exists after is not the consciousness of a person. Not everyone in the family feels the same way; worse, he must keep an eye on his daughter, who may not be sharing everything she’s thinking. Having been published in Clarkesworld in 2011, some of the ideas in this story are, at this point, well-trod. Further, a few of the post-apocalyptic details were, to my thinking, unlikely, or not quite fleshed out. Regardless—and perhaps as a demonstration of just how good the piece is—it’s still a great story, with wonderful tension, interesting ideas, and challenging thoughts around ethics, the self, relationships, and more. There’s also a cautious parallelism with the dwindling or disappearing cultures of our current era. Better yet, consistent to many of Liu’s pieces, the story lands in a place that is carefully powerful.

Some of the stories stand as being in the same “universe.” There are clear, unifying themes among many of the pieces: identity, family, culture, and so on. Many deal with the aforementioned singularity, giving a different perspective, a different timeline, or a different aspect of the event. On the downside, occasionally a section will read like a character is simply explaining something to the reader. Then again, I had this same experience with “Menagerie,” but it still ended up being one of the best, most effective stories I’ve ever read. While some of the stories in this collection didn’t work for me, I have no doubt that an internet search will find positive reviews of the same pieces. All told, it’s a good collection, with some fiction that should not be missed, by a writer whose skill has been proven time and time again.

The New Voices of Science Fiction
edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Weisman
Paperback / Ebook
ISBN: 978-1616962913
Tachyon, November 2019, 432 pgs

One might argue over the title: The New Voices of Science Fiction. My initial expectation was a set of incredible stories by virtually unknown authors who had been mostly overlooked by the awards circuits, or perhaps a few titles by recently published authors who had received instant recognition. But authors such as Rich Larson, with a slew of publications to his name, are hardly undiscovered. More importantly perhaps, Suzanne Palmer has been selling fiction and poetry since 2005. Alice Sola Kim since 2006. Jason Sanford lists story publications on his website going back to 2000. This begs the question, what does “new” mean? Rules for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award) limits “New” to “authors whose first SFWA-eligible publication occurred within the two years prior to the award year.” Regardless of where a story appeared, I’m not sure if I consider someone who has been consistently publishing fiction for ten or more years a “new voice.” It’s a picky, shallow, and possibly irrelevant point, but titles do set up the initial expectation of a book.

Pickiness over the title aside, New Voices is a reprint anthology that follows the well-regarded 2018 World Fantasy Award winning anthology The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. Stories lean toward “soft SF,” in the sense of being easily readable and requiring no understanding of complicated scientific principles or theories: time travel and robots, for example, used as story mechanisms, not as theoretical discussions around astrophysics or mechanical engineering. Pieces are thematically scattered but tend to be story-focused and character-driven.

“Openness” by Alexander Weinstein—founder and director of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing—first appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal 29 in 2016 and has been previously reprinted for Weinstein’s collection Children of the New World and The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017. The writing is immediately (but easily) engaging, with a literary sensibility of capturing mood and moment, through straightforward, well-crafted prose. The SF element is mostly around near-futuristic changes in the ways we interface or communicate. Few people talk physically anymore, as communication is more efficient using modes inspired by or evolved from social media. When two lovers meet, they soon discover that the means they prefer to use to communicate are different in important ways. For SF readers, most of the tech will be nothing particularly new, and could even be exchanged for other tropes without changing the story. But the narrative is really about the ways we relate to each other, and the things we hide or reveal in relationships. There’s a touch of the generational aspect to technological advances, and potentially some deeper thoughts around rebirth (metaphorically), or more literally, reengagement with the self and others. More than anything, it’s about intimacy, and as such it’s a wonderful story.

Nino Cipri’s “The Shape of My Name” is at first disorienting and confusing. After finishing the story and looking back, I realized that it may just be superbly structured. Besides this, it’s also an utterly captivating tale. It’s a time-travel piece—with a “who cares about how it works” attitude, for the most part—whose heart is centered on a boy’s attempt to come to terms with a mother who wanted to keep the boy from transitioning. It’s heartfelt while well-told, with an excellent ending which left me teary-eyed.

Some of the pieces are more light-hearted or amusing in tone, such as the aforementioned Suzanne Palmer’s “The Secret Life of Bots,” about a tiny robot that must find a pest nibbling holes in a run-down ship. The initial setup is intriguing, as well as specific aspects of the setup, such as the fact that the protagonist-bot is the oldest bot on the ship and the last to be awakened. The narrative voice humanizes the bot and simultaneously brings humor to an otherwise dark tale (but potentially takes it farther away from “hard SF”). As the little bot tries and tries again, human protagonist Captain Boraye and crew plan a last stand against invading aliens. The story comes to a satisfying, if unsurprising conclusion, and entertains throughout.

Arguably, the best use of well-recognized names in a “New Voices” type of anthology is in leveraging recognition to shine a light on a few people who just may become the sorts of rising legends their ToC-mates already are. Some of the stories collected here are lauded within the genre publishing industry, such as award-winning “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse, award-winning “Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker, and award-nominated “Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar. Some have not won awards but are by award-winning authors, such as “Calved” by Sam J. Miller (a story which nonetheless appeared on the 2015 Locus Recommended reading list and was an Asimov’s Readers’ Award finalist). And a few are by actual new voices in SF, such as Amman Sabet with “Tender Loving Plastics” and Samantha Mills with “Strange Waters.” Whether or not we quibble over the title, there’s a lot of worthy fiction here, and discovery awaits!

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is an assistant editor at Locus Magazine. He’s soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.