Review: Augments of Change salient in a time of racial tension

Augments of Change cover

Augments of Change

America is going through another paroxysm of racially tinged violence, reminding everyone of our failure to reconcile our history with our ideals. In my own lifetime, the country has experienced urban riots (e.g, Watts in Los Angeles), violence after the Rodney King verdict, and last week, two more in a long string of deaths of black men at the hands of police, followed by the mass murder of five Dallas policemen by a African-American assailant with a military-style assault rifle. It’s as if a murderous virus is spreading through the culture.

The news has left the country morose and pessimistic. People feel that the issues of race, as well as related issues of immigration and income inequality, will never be resolved or mitigated. As citizens of a democracy, we’ve entered a time of madness when everyone whom we don’t know and don’t agree with is The Other. We’ve lost the ability to listen to and respect other views. Demagogues such as Donald Trump say out loud what many people feel, forgetting that civilized behavior in the public sphere requires a certain suppression of thought and feeling in order to get along without fearing someone will strike back in anger. Respect and tolerance are out of style.

Speculative fiction writers have long tried to tell stories of race. In an genre dominated until recently by white men, only a few black voices have stood out, among them Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and N.K. Jemisin. Less well-known in the sci-fi mainstream is Kelvin Christopher James, whose most recent novel, Augments of Change, takes the myth of race, as well as it taboos and tropes, and turns it on its head. His unique voice brings a new clarity to race as an illusion that influences daily thought. Continue reading

The Girl in the Road: Literary fiction with a sci-fi overlay

The Girl in the Road cover image

Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road is literary fiction with a sci-fi sensibility.

As a writer who likes to look at speculative fiction through the lens of climate change, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to read Monica Byrne‘s debut novel, The Girl in the Road, published in 2014. Though its portrait of two women connected across time and space is classified as science fiction by some, the novel has few of the trappings of sci-fi, apart from some gadgets and a sea-spanning platform that generates energy. This is literary fiction with a sci-fi overlay. However, the most pleasantly shocking aspect of this amazing story is how it subverts the received view of technology and economic colonialism as strictly a north-south phenomenon. In The Girl in the Road, these phenomenon are shifted 90 degrees to show it as a universal experience.

The novel interweaves two stories of women making harrowing journeys, both set in a future a few decades from now. Mariama is a West African slave girl who escapes and hitches a ride on a truck bound for Ethiopia with a cargo that’s not what it seems. In this world, the ancient kingdom, the only one never conquered by a European power, is dominated by India (China hovers nearby), which is practicing a colonialism not far different from the British Raj, though with money, rather than guns. The other journey is made by Meena from the far side of the Indian Ocean. Her destination is also the Horn of Africa, and over an accidental road made by a sea-crossing machine that generates energy from wave action. Continue reading

Review: The appropriated world of The Guild of Saint Cooper

The Guild of Saint Cooper cover

The Guild of Saint Cooper, a novel by Shya Scanlon

Good artists copy. Great artists steal. — attributed to Pablo Picasso, among others

Discussion of cultural appropriation has surged in the last few years in the context of race relations. White culture has borrowed and stolen from black culture for decades, particularly in entertainment, usually without enough credit to the origins of a style of music, dance, poetry, or performance. What happens then, when a writer creates a fictional world wholesale out of another fictional world? Is he borrowing in order to comment on that world, or stealing from it because he can’t come up with a better idea?

Author Shya Scanlon appropriates shamelessly from a realm created by another artist, director David Lynch, to manufacture a post-apocalyptic Seattle in The Guild of Saint Cooper, published by Dzanc Books in April 2015. Lynch is best known for Twin Peaks, a quirky, strange, and beloved television series that aired just two seasons’ worth of episodes. The first season, the better of the two, focused on a murder investigation by Dale Cooper, an FBI special agent with his own methods and approach to detective work. Cooper’s character combines the calm certainty of a Zen monk with a fascination in the unseen anticipating another fictional FBI agent, Fox Mulder, who appears in a different TV series, The X-Files, which debuted two years after Twin Peaks ended. Continue reading

Poll: What genre does my current novel project belong in?

meme

Genres? Genres? We don’t need no stinkin’ genres!

Writers of a certain stripe hate fiction genres. Committed writers focus on character and plot, and the fact that a story takes place in space or another historical era is secondary. Writers can live with basic genres, such as science fiction or mystery, but when things get fine-grained, such as paranormal romance (the Twilight series, for example), they have a tendency to go ape-shit. The labels are too constraining, too arbitrary, they complain. And when you bring up the newest sub-genres, such as “solarpunk” or “climate fiction,” you get strange looks or outright hostility, pure and simple.

I once thought I wrote science fiction, but my editor on Carbon Run convinced me that it’s a dystopian thriller, more in line with Hunger Games than Star Trek. In truth, only booksellers care about genre, apart from the readers they’ve trained. Genres are simply conveniences that writers have to live with. Put another way, genres are the old solution to the discoverability problem: How do writers find readers and vice versa? You want sci-fi, you look on the sci-fi shelf, or enter “sci-fi” in the Amazon search box. Continue reading

What is the role of a writer as climate change creeps up on us?

Conference

People in suits gather in Paris to decide the fate of a climate-change world.

It’s a ripe scene for satire. Twenty-five thousand bureaucrats and another 25,000 hangers-on are gathered in Paris at COP21 to exchange climate change jargon over sustainable wine and cheese. It’s hard, however, to ignore the seriousness of their effort, especially as a pall lingers over the city three weeks after the November 13 terror attacks. The spectacle of so many people in sensible shoes working as one reminds me that most problems are solvable with elbow grease and cooperation. Best to leave them alone to do their jobs.

Maybe I’m a little jealous. It must be exciting to be part of an effort that could save the planet while exchanging tips on the best places in France for glamping. Instead, my head is buried in my laptop as I try to tell stories about survival in a future that no one can predict with any certainty. Even if COP21 is wildly successful, the planet will still warm by a couple of degrees, and millions of mostly poor people will have to cope with the changes. Continue reading

How writers can read The Grapes of Wrath as climate fiction

Farmer and sons during a dust storm.

John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath serves as a model for speculative fiction writers interested in portraying the effects of climate change. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Great fiction dramatizes times, places and attitudes it was never meant to illuminate. Shakespeare’s plays are loved today, despite the sometimes impenetrable language and unacceptable sexism and racism, because they reveal the universal. For several years, I’ve been interested in how fiction authors deal with climate change, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of the better attempts, if you choose to interpret it this way.

In case you skipped your American Literature class, or forgot to watch John Ford’s film adaptation, the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the Joad family from the loss of their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s through their migration to California’s Central Valley. They descend from a life of gentile poverty to one of desperate survival. Continue reading