Kaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, was one of the crowdfunding projects that caught my attention last year: it was to be a book of “diverse YA science fiction and fantasy stories,” dedicated to collecting otherwise less-heard-from voices and spotlighting minority narratives. And now, it’s finally out, containing fiction from names like Garth Nix, Sofia Samatar and Jim C. Hines as well as fresh faces like Alena McNamara.
The first thing I’ll note is that while Kaleidoscope is certainly a collection of stories about and for young adults, which I very much appreciate, it has a definite cross-generational appeal. The stories are strong narratively and affectively, and since most deal deeply in complex issues of identity—a pleasantly stunning variety of disabilities, sexualities, genders, and ethnicities all feature in this anthology—the overall tone is quite mature and nuanced.
The other thing that I think it’s important to note is that, despite its explicit focus on diverse narratives and stories of minority experience, Kaleidoscope very much avoids being an “issue” book—a problem I’ve seen quite often in young adult fiction aiming to be inclusive. While a few stories would, I suspect, fall under this heading—the whole point of the story being the “problem” of being different, rather than a narrative in which the character’s differences are part of the tapestry—the vast majority of them do not, and certainly the anthology as a whole soars right past that trope into much more interesting waters.
Because this is a strong anthology that meets, if not exceeds, the expectations I had for it based on its mission statement and editorial directive. Krasnostein and Rios have selected a delightful mélange of stories that covers so much ground, it’s impossible to find them repetitive or over-similar—and that’s one of the real pleasures of avoiding the “issue story” trap, because those are all more or less the same with different names pasted on. In these stories, while the protagonists do sometimes struggle with their sense of self, their identities are generally complex and multifaceted with no two alike.
Instead of explaining that it’s hard to be queer or disabled, these stories explore what it means to, for example, encounter a chupacabra and a pair of cruel magicians as a young woman on the autistic spectrum, or what it’s like to meet figures out of legend as two young girls in love and about to be split up by long-distance travel. It’s about life experiences—sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful, sometimes mundane, and often all of the above—and about growing up, coming into one’s own as a person.
So, yeah, it’s a handsome and moving book. And the stories themselves, too, are solid: it’s not the concept alone I’m digging. For the handful of folks who seem to think that these calls for diverse fiction are just “PC” or pandering, I’d point out that Kaleidoscope and other projects like it contain some of the most adventurous, creative, wide-ranging sf I’ve seen—nothing here felt tired, and all of it felt vital, thrumming with the power of telling one’s truths and the truths of a wider world that is strange and different and not particularly homogenous. It’s good stuff.
As for a few particular favorites, there were several stories I appreciated a lot: “Walkdog” by Sofia Samatar was gutting and linguistically delightful—it’s written as a report from a student, complete with expected misspellings and grammatical foibles—while “The Truth about Owls” by Amal El-Mohtar deals in a whole different way with stories, language, and self. “Careful Magic” by Karen Healey and “Ordinary Things” by Vylar Kaftan are both strong pieces featuring young women who have obsessive-compulsive disorders, though the stories themselves are quite different in focus and tone; Healey’s is more typical young-adult fare, uplifting and fun, while Kaftan’s brushes against the bridge between teenage and adult life, magical and realist, with a sharper edge. “Vanilla,” by Dirk Flinthart, is one of the science fiction stories I liked most: it’s got a complex three-person relationship that also happens to be a cross-species relationship, balanced alongside a conflict of national and ethnic identity for the protagonist.
There were very few stories here I didn’t care for, honestly; I found the majority of the reading experience compelling, and didn’t put the book down much. The editorial arrangement creates a good flow between darker and lighter fare, longer and shorter narratives, and keeps the reader moving at a steady clip through the book. While some pieces felt a bit topical, as if they could have gone deeper into their subject matter—for example, “Every Little Thing” by Holly Kench—the whole lot goes well together, and the project as a whole is wonderfully coherent and cohesive.
Lastly, it’s also worth noting that, as another crowdfunded anthology backed through an active small press—in this case, Twelfth Planet out of Australia—I think Kaleidoscope might just point toward a recently evolving field for short fiction in contemporary sf publishing. While common wisdom has often been that anthologies are loss-leaders for publishers large and small, the trend toward “fund first, publish second” seems to be shifting the dynamics to allow more presses to tackle the work of publishing short stories. And I’m very much down for that. It’ll be interesting to see how this trend continues in the future—hopefully with more books like this one.
Kaleidoscope is published by Twelfth Planet Press.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.