Aboriginal Sci-Fi: Take Us To Your Chief by Drew Hayden Taylor

“First Nations and science fiction don’t usually go together,” admits Drew Hayden Taylor in the introduction to his new short story collection, Take Us to Your Chief. A popular Ojibway author, essayist, and playwright, Taylor is best well known for his amusing and incisive non-fiction (Funny, You Don’t Look Like One), and as the editor of several non-fiction anthologies (Me Sexy and Me Funny) about Aboriginal culture and society. With Take Us to Your Chief, Taylor is taking on a new challenge by bringing together his experience as a leading writer on the First Nations people of Canada and his childhood love of science fiction. “In fact,” Taylor continues, “they could be considered rather unusual topics to mention in the same sentence, much like fish and bicycles. As genre fiction goes, they are practically strangers, except for maybe the occasional parallel universe story.”

Taylor grew up watching and reading science fiction. He’s an admitted fan of Golden Age SF (which shows through in each of the collection’s nine stories), and devoured H.G. Wells as a youth—but satisfying Aboriginal SF was not something that existed at that time, and even now is difficult to find. “Most people’s only contact with Native sci-fi is that famous episode from the original Star Trek series called ‘The Paradise Syndrome,'” Taylor says, referencing the long-regretful representation of Aboriginal people in genre fiction, “where Kirk loses his memory and ends up living with some transplanted Indigene on a faraway planet. These Aboriginal folks came complete with black wigs, standard 1960s headbands and fringed  miniskirts.”

Despite Taylor’s concerns about the crossover between traditional First Nations history, culture, and storytelling and science fiction, Take Us to Your Chief proves that even the least likely companions can become bosom buddies.

Stories

“A Culturally Inappropriate Armageddon”

The collection’s opening story throws you right into Taylor’s likeable, amusing, often heartbreaking, and always thoughtful vision of science fiction through an Aboriginal perspective. Broken down into several chunks, this story follows a group of radio station employees before, during, and after an alien invasion devastates Earth. Readers have a chance to see post-contact life, as Emily Porter opens the first community radio station on her reserve, and it’s interesting to see how Taylor draws parallels between the arrival of aliens and the first contact between the First Nations of North America and European explorers. As time flows on, and impending armageddon unknowingly approaches, the radio station thrives, but the cost of its success is more than monetary. It’s great seeing how Emily and her co-workers adapt to various challenges, some mundane, some of a more life-threatening variety, and Taylor’s ability to inject humour into even a post-apocalyptic setting is admirable.

“I Am … Am I”

A team of Artificial Intelligence developers stumble into success—but their creation is not what they expected. This one was a bit of a miss for me. It asks some interesting questions, but the leaps in logic—not to mention technology—that lead to an AI exhibiting emotion and free will felt too convenient, too fast. In addition, the execution of the (admittedly strong) premise distracted from the story’s more important philosophical questions about how a non-human intelligent entity might view our history.

“Lost in Space”

This bottle episode stars Mitchell, an astronaut who’s part First Nations, and Mac, a computer AI companion who pulls double-duty in keeping their spacecraft on track and Mitchell from losing his mind. It’s about familial relationships, and the human connection to a planet that we will inevitably leave behind as we journey to the stars. As Mitchell ponders his place among the stars, it sums up the collection’s desire to contemplate Aboriginal life through the lens of science fiction, and our fast-changing world:

“But being a Native in space … Now that’s a head-scratcher. Think about it. We sprang from Turtle Island. The earth and water are so tied to who we are. There’s an old saying, ‘The voice of the land is in our language.’ But what happens when you aren’t able to run your fingers through the sand along the river? Or walk barefoot in the grass? … I can’t help wondering if it’s possible to be a good, proper Native astronaut.”

What do we take with us when we leave? Taylor asks the reader. And what remains behind with those places and people we love?

“Dreams of Doom”

An Orwellian thriller about dreamcatchers, government surveillance, and appropriation, “Dreams of Doom” follows a young reporter as her world unravels at the seams, and a conspiracy is revealed. A highlight of the collection, this story is tense and thoughtfully examines the relationship between Aboriginal groups and dominant governments in a post-colonial setting.

“Mr. Gizmo”

A toy robot (the titular Mr. Gizmo) confronts a young nameless man who is contemplating suicide. This story, which is rich and heartbreaking, bravely addresses the crisis facing many youths in Canada’s First Nation communities. It’s a bleak story, but not without hope, and there is a deep-rooted belief that the issues facing the young man, and the great First Nations communities, are solvable.

“Taking your own life because life is painful, that doesn’t end it. More often than not, that spreads the pain. One person, then another, probably another will see what you’ve done. Some might follow. Or it might just be your family, sitting there at your funeral, crying, blaming themselves. Suicide becomes a virus, spreading across the youth of a community. And it spreads sadness to everyone.” (p. 89)

Heartbreak is at the core of many stories in this collection, but none moreso than “Mr. Gizmo.” Taylor shrewdly wraps this dark exploration in a humorous package, and the effect leaves the reader just as startled and contemplative as the young man. The road to the future, Taylor knows, is paved with hope and belief.

“Is this a suicide intervention?” the young man asks at one point. “No,” Mr. Gizmo replies, “it’s a cultural intervention. You and your generation are the elders of tomorrow. The virus starts and stops with you.”

“Petropaths”

This traditional time travel story—with all the expected warnings about tinkering with the past—manages to set itself apart by unfolding from the perspective of a concerned loved one watching their grandson descend into obsessiveness. The way Taylor interweaves modern technology—and the instant access to vast swathes of information available in this era—and various cultural touchstones is interesting, and he uses the crossover to examine the dangers of becoming enveloped in something you don’t understand.

It seemed my wayward and unfocused grandson had been studying [the petroglyphs] pretty deeply. … He said you couldn’t help by notice after a while that there was a sort of order to all the things carved into that wall. Like it was the Earth telling us a story, he said. Or, more accurately, he added, like it was a song waiting to be sung.

“What if,” he said, his voice cracking with growing excitement, “the petroglyphs are like that set of lines musicians write, and each of the images is a note?”

Like all of Taylor’s stories in this collection, there’s a bittersweetness to the time traveller’s enthusiasm, and a warning about the danger of forgotten wisdom. Be careful of what you think you know.

“Stars”

“Stars” is the most structurally unique story in the collection. It follows three unrelated Aboriginal men through various periods of time as they gaze up at the heavens, pondering humanity’s place among the stars. Each of the men lives in a very different era of First Nations society—pre-contact, modern day, post-interstellar travel—which leads to broad interpretations of those very same stars. Taylor effectively uses the three-part structure to connect the three men in unexpected and often delightful ways:

The image in front of him had taken 490 years to reach Kepler-186f. Again, in galactic terms that wasn’t very long. The Earth he was looking at was very different from the Earth he knew was there now. It was like looking into a time machine. When the sun’s light had bounced off the planet’s surface and begun its journey across the cosmos to this hidden part of the galaxy, the human race had not even flown in planes yet. It was just a hundred or so years after somebody named Columbus had sailed across what had been thought of as an impenetrable ocean, navigating by the stars, and landed on a continent populated by people who no doubt had their own ideas about the stars and planets far above them.

“Stars” once again highlights Taylor’s interest in examining how ancient traditions survive and evolve as human society advances. This was one of my favourite stories in the collection.

“Superdisappointed”

Think superpowers will turn your life around? Kyle, the world’s first Aboriginal superhero (or “super-Aboriginal,” as he thinks of himself), finds that it doesn’t quite work that way. His boyfriend has grown distant, the government won’t keep their paws off him, and sometimes he can’t even find the strength to get out of bed (even if his eyelids are strong enough to lift a car), and that’s not even touching on the legal problems that dog his every step.

Discussing a recent lawsuit with his lawyer, Kyle longs just to disappear:

“I don’t know why I’m to blame for kids being so stupid. Don’t they know I have no money?”

The smartly dressed woman leaned back in her chair. “I don’t think it’s necessarily about the money. They all know your financial situation. Any luck finding work?”

Kyle shrugged. “Not really. Seems I’m tainted. Who’d wanna hire me? I still get an offer or two a week from these far-off countries I can’t pronounce, all wanting my help taking over the world. But I really don’t want to leave home.”

“That’s … probably a good thing.” She coughed into her hand. “Look, Kyle, I would normally tell someone in your position to hang tough, but since you are the strongest man in the world there not much point in saying that.” She let out a short chuckle at her own joke. “I’m doing what I can, but when you’re special like you obviously are, people sometimes dislike that. In fact, as I’m sure you’ve realized, quite a few downright resent it.”

No wonder she wanted to pain him the colour blue.

“But I didn’t ask for this. I never wanted this. I just want to disappear.”

Taylor delves in the “how” of Kyle’s superpowers, but the most interesting aspect of the story is his reluctance and desire to shrug off his newfound celebrity status to return to his old life. Sometimes returning to your to where you came from is harder than it seems.

“Take Us to Your Chief”

The collection’s title story is an amusing take on first contact—think Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” but instead of the world’s military and top scientists being put in charge, it’s three wayward middle-aged men who would rather sit in silence drinking beer than watch world change first-hand. Shortly after aliens touch down on Earth, Cheemo, one of those men, realizes “he should have watched more Star Trek as a kid. Star Wars doesn’t really prepare you for a situation like this. This was definitely a Star Trek moment.” Taylor’s humour is out in force, and, though short, this story manages to pack a punch that is both amusing and thoughtful.

Aboriginal Sci-Fi for the Future

What Take Us to Your Chief lacks in originality, it makes up for in perspective. Each of its stories are classic SF archetypes—they don’t take any surprising turns, but they are told in a way that challenges readers to consider the world through a different lens. In each line, you can see that Taylor has consciously chosen SF for its ability to speculate about our modern world—such as the genre has done since its inception—and, despite his words in the collection’s introduction, exploration of Aboriginal social and cultural issues are a terrific fit for the genre.

In the style of the Golden Age SF that he loves, Taylor’s prose is uncomplicated, but the thing that stood out most to me is that these stories beg to be read aloud. From his conversational style, to the intimacy of the reader to the narrators, Taylor’s voice shines through, and oftentimes you’ll swear you can hear him reciting the stories as you read along.

“Several times I have endeavoured to compile an anthology of Native sci-fi from Canada’s best First Nations writers, but I was stymied repeatedly,” Taylor admits in the collection’s acknowledgements. That failed project, however, led to Taylor tackling the concept of Aboriginal SF entirely on his own—much to the delight of readers. In the day and age of Lightspeed‘s Women Destroy Science Fiction and Rose Fox and Daniel José Older’s Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, there’s a clear desire and market for SF anthologies that explore the genre from diverse perspectives. Hopefully this means Taylor’s anthology to one day see light.

As a non-Aboriginal reader who lives alongside some of the First Nations featured in the stories, notably the Kwakwaka’wakw, I found Taylor’s stories accessible, even when they’re exploring some complex and uncomfortable aspects of life for the First Nations of Canada. Taylor injects humour into even the darkest of his tales, and this works well to alleviate tension (when necessary), but also show another side to First Nations communities that is often misunderstood or ignored entirely—each story is sly and sharply observant. Collectively, these stories expose and address the many complicated challenges faced by modern First Nations communities, and through the unrelenting forward-thinking optimism of science fiction, Taylor looks to the future for answers. Take Us to Your Chief is a unique collection that offers a potent reminder of why science fiction is one of the most important literary mediums.

Take Us to Your Chief is available now from Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories and “The Penelope Qingdom”. He regularly contributes to Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and several other websites. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.

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