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
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
Good artists copy. Great artists steal. — attributed to Pablo Picasso, among others
The Guild of Saint Cooper, a novel by Shya Scanlon
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
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
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
WBEZ-FM’s After Water series tells climate change stories centered on the Great Lakes.
Science fiction has a long, glorious history on radio, beginning in the medium’s golden age with Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Sci-fi dropped off radio’s radar as television took over, but the genre occasionally reappears in special projects. Chicago-based WBEZ-FM, one of the country’s leading public radio stations (This American Life; Serial), has produced a thoughtful anthology of stories titled After Water. The producers avoid the term “science fiction,” preferring to “contemplate the future from a dual lens of science and art.” That’s puzzling, because science fiction is at the point where storytelling art and science intersect. Never mind the reluctance. After Water is excellent, whatever you call it, genre-wise.
Purists might prefer the term “speculative fiction,” because all nine radio stories in the series assume a world altered by climate change, and they imagine its impact on the meaning and uses of fresh water. Only fools deny the science of climate change. Today’s question is: How will the phenomenon affect our children and grandchildren? Most of the settings are on Lake Michigan or the Great Lakes, the main source of drinking water for the city of Chicago. Continue reading
The Water Knife is a noir-ish thriller set in a water-starved Southwest.
The western drought has forced everyone to know their rights. From San Diego to Seattle, talk shows, newspapers, and blogs overflow with debates over senior water rights versus junior water rights, who is abusing their rights to water by wasting it, and how much government is trampling on those rights. A year ago, water was something that came out of the tap. Today, it’s a way to shame your neighbor into environmental responsibility. How long before shots are fired?
In his new speculative novel, The Water Knife, released today, Paolo Bacigalupi imagines a low-intensity shooting war over water. The battles are fought by paramilitary hirelings of water districts, who take what other districts, cities, or states won’t sell, and send agents to investigate rumors of water and rights thereto. That’s the task of Angel Velasquez, a gang banger turned water knife, a semi-legitimate employee of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA, or “sin-wah,” as I liked to pronounce it in my head) and its leader, Catherine Case, an empire-building Las Vegas water manager. Continue reading
Why aren’t more literary realists getting real about climate change?
Policy wonks, eco-alarmists, and right-wing denialists dominate the climate change conversation with boring reports, deafening polemics, and forgettable op-eds. The mound of non-fiction reaches to the moon, and we’re no closer to a collective response to a warming world. In contrast, the number of novels written with climate change themes might not reach the top shelf in your living room.
Where are the novelists, author Adam Trexler asks? Where are the imagineers using story to organize, illustrate, and give emotional meaning to the nearly invisible fact of a heating planet? They’re out there, he says, but they’re lurking among the paperback thrillers in airport newsstands and on science fiction shelves in mega-bookstores. With a few exceptions, the “serious” literary world is completely ignoring the most important challenge to Homo Sapiens in 10,000 years.
Trexler builds the title of his book, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, published the University of Virginia Press, on a relatively new argument: humanity is the most potent geological and ecological force on the planet since the last Ice Age. The Anthropocene Era started with the invention of agriculture, but it picked up steam in the 18th century with the burning of coal to fuel industry, which turned the atmosphere into a dump for waste carbon. When a real-life “greenhouse effect” was first identified by science in the mid-20th century, intrepid sci-fi and thriller writers found fertile ground for storytelling. Continue reading
James Bradley shows that human relationships are timeless, even as the climate changes
The slow, rolling nature of the unfolding changes to the planet’s climate stump many storytellers, who fall back on the set-pieces–mega-storms, pandemics, floods–rather than focus on the subtler effects on the planet of rising CO2 levels. The long timescales are another problem; some transformations might be noticed in a human lifetime, others may take millennia to play out. These phenomena can overwhelm an attempt to show the influence of global warming on human relationships, which can flare and fade in the space of a few days.
Australian author James Bradley has found a way to balance the bigger picture with the pattern of human life and love, which continues in all its forms despite the imperceptible yet inexorable change happening all around. In Clade (the word’s root means “branch” in Greek, as in a branch of the tree of life), Adam Leith, a scientist, and his wife Ellie, an artist, have a daughter, Summer, but she is a troublesome puzzle to her parents. As the early and sometimes deadly effects of a warming climate take hold, Summer has her own son, Noah, diagnosed as autistic, but high-functioning. He spends much of his time absorbed in “virch,” that is, virtual worlds that are easier to control than the real world. Summer, however, is unable to cope with her “special needs” boy, and abandons him with his grandfather, now separated from Ellie. In a surprising and delightful ending some 70 years after Clade’s opening, Bradley turns the autistic stereotype on its head as Noah achieves an age-old dream. Continue reading
Nature’s Confession is a sci-fi epic.
is an impressive sci-fi epic with a multi-versal scope. On the one hand, it’s a young adult romance featuring a mixed-race boy named “Boy” and his infatuation with Valentine, a red-haired beauty with a talent for particle physics. On the other, it’s a speculative story of a family falling on hard emotional times as the father takes up with a female android, which leads the mother to pursue a career in interplanetary politics. Much of the action happens on an earth sickened by pollution and climate change. There’s so much going on that it’ll take two or three reads to take it all in.
The author, J.L. Morin, is fearless. She’s unafraid to cram teen love, the origin of the universe, time travel, and an unrelenting satire of modern life into 277 pages, hanging the text with digressions and neologisms like Christmas tree ornaments. My personal favorite new word is “busywork,” referring to the purposeless drudgery forced upon those of us droning along in cubicles by organizations whose leaders may acknowledge us once a year, if we’re lucky. The tone is a combination of Alice in Wonderland (complete with rabbit hole) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a dash of Gulliver’s Travels. Continue reading