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Lee Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]
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Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Far Apart, Close By: Homesick by Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri’s debut book of fabulist queer stories, Homesick, won the Dzanc Short Fiction Collection Prize in 2018—and now the collection has been released, just in time to be an ideal (and mildly haunting) October read. The pieces included are innovative and introspective at turns, often open-ended but evocative in their exploration of liminal spaces in homes, families, and the world at large.

Eight of the nine stories in Homesick are reprints from various publications, including magazines like Tor.com and Nightmare, while the final novella, “Before We Disperse Like Star Stuff,” is original to the book. Cipri’s fiction takes on questions of nationality, neurodivergence, and gender in the context of connection and estrangement, and in doing so, approaches the emotions surrounding complicated and complicating problems in contemporary life.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

More of Us Beyond This Room: The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

Tess is a geologist who, under the cover of her historical research, seeks to edit the timeline to exert small positive influences against the efforts of “anti-travel activists.” Beth is a teenage punk on the cusp of adulthood in the early ‘90s who witnesses and helps cover up a killing, setting her own life veering onto a different course than she anticipated. Both women are activists at heart, surrounded by other women of all sorts invested in the struggle for justice, and both are inextricably linked to each other across time.

Because “Geologist” means something different in the world of The Future of Another Timeline: scientists and practitioners whose field of study surrounds the Machines, five constructs scattered across the globe that allow restricted travel through time using science so advanced as to seem like magic (depending on the time period). While the Machines are older than the human species itself, the group of men trying to destroy them—and in so doing, lock a terrible future into place—are making disturbing gains, unseen and unnoticed by anyone except Tess’s group of feminist geologists. As a final confrontation approaches, a collective of unlikely allies are all that stand against the creation of one terrible, final timeline.

The Future of Another Timeline is an absolute tour de force that wholeheartedly embraces the radical potential science fiction holds as a political genre. The novel plants its footing in the tradition of feminist sf that stretches from Joanna Russ backwards and forwards, exploring vital questions of power and resistance, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to fight. I savored it, I wept with it, I had to take rage-breaks with it. The book is a good book, in terms of craft and execution, but it’s also a fucking important book—an urgent book, a clear-seeing book, a book with ethics to argue as well as the passion to do so.

[A review, spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

To Elsewhere: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow

January Scaller walks through a Door standing alone in a field and for a single moment enters another world—a chance encounter that will change the course of her life. While her father explores the globe, procuring treasures from far-off lands for his employer (and January’s foster-father of sorts) Mr. Locke, January learns to participate in high society, her willfulness crushed out of her one punishment at a time… until she happens upon a book: The Ten Thousand Doors. As the truth of her childhood experience begins to seem more and more real, she must question the world she lives in and her role within it.

The turn of the 20th century is a fraught, fruitful time to set a novel concerned with social change, gender, and colonialism. The Ten Thousand Doors of January occupies a world in transition, a precarious world, where institutional forces are in open conflict with resistance at all corners. January herself occupies several liminal spaces: she’s the ward of a wealthy white patriarch, and so able to access class privilege. However, she is also mixed-race, and so continually judged as to her fitness for given segregated spaces. All of her experiences are circumscribed by codes of gender and respectability, and a great deal of her struggle is against those codes.

[A review.]

Skeletons All the Way Down: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, kicks off a weird-wild-and-wonderful trilogy full of politics, lesbians, and undead bullshit set in a solar system that has scientific advances like space travel but also necromantic magic pushing the crumbling worlds along. From the first line of the book, Muir makes no bones (ahem) about the style of her protagonist Gideon’s approach: “In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.”

Gideon Nav is a dedicated swordswoman, a fan of pornographic fiction particularly that featuring other dedicated swordswomen, and an escape artist with almost one hundred failures under her belt trying to get off-planet from the sepulcheral haunts of the House of the Ninth. Her sole same-age companion is the Lady and Heir of the House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Naturally, the pair are also enemies at the extreme; Harrow’s prime entertainment is Gideon’s torment. Which means that when Harrowhark receives the summons to attend trials selecting the next batch of Lyctors, and needs Gideon’s sword at her side, things are going to get—exciting.

[A review, spoilers.]

Where Good Work Would Grow: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

“If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this,” begins Ariadne O’Neill, the narrator and protagonist of To Be Taught, if Fortunate. At the final planet of her ecological survey, Ariadne is writing home to share her human experience of space travel—and, ultimately, to make a request of her potential listener. As she continues, her message is not necessarily urgent in the most literal sense; communication takes fourteen years to travel one direction between Earth and the habitable system her team is studying, another fourteen to return. But it is, nonetheless, a matter in urgent need of response despite the gap of decades.

Ariadne, Chikondi, Elena, and Jack are a small team of scientists (and engineers) dedicated to space exploration as funded via a global nonprofit, a grand human network devoted to science for the sake of itself outside the pressures of capital and nation. The team survives through a complex patchwork of technologies: travel slower than light balanced out with a torpor-state that allows humans to exist without advanced aging in a coma-like rest, somaforming to adapt the body to radiation and necessities of life on different habitable biomes, and so forth. At the heart of it all, though, is human ingenuity and drive to learn—to be struck by the incomprehensible open canvas of the universe and to try, even briefly, to know it.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

Just Out of Sight: Echoes, Edited by Ellen Datlow

“I don’t believe in ghosts, but I love ghost stories,” opens esteemed editor Ellen Datlow in her introduction to Echoes. The anthology’s central focus is the ‘ghost story’ but within that framework it ranges wide, across the world and through the decades, from familial dramas to wartime haunts and more. Echoes is an absolute behemoth of an anthology, with all pieces minus three reprints original to the book.

That makes for roughly seven hundred pages of never-seen-before spooky stories by writers ranging the gamut from Nathan Ballingrud to A. C. Wise, Stephen Graham Jones to Indrapamit Das, and so on. Stories are set in India, in Britain, in the US. Some are ghost stories with science fictional settings, others purely fantastical, others still realist—but there’s always the creeping dread, a specter at the corner of the story’s vision. The sheer volume of work Datlow has collected in Echoes fills out the nooks and crannies of the theme with gusto.

[A review.]

A Sword-and-Sorcery Romp: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain

Djinn king Melek Ahmar, one of the Seven and the titular Lord of Tuesday, awakens from his imprisonment in a stone sarcophagus to find the world has moved on. It’s been somewhere between three and four thousand years since he was hit over the head and stashed up a holy mountain, and in the meantime, humanity has poisoned the globe with fatal nanotech and the requisite counter-nanites. The city of Kathmandu still exists as a cut-rate paradise, run by an AI called Karma, full of content if not happy citizens whose needs are all more or less met.

Except for one: recidivist and mass murderer Bhan Gurung, who is quite on board with Melek Ahmar’s plans to conquer the city (because what else is there for him to do but a little conquest?)—however, Gurung has his own plot running, one that spans forty years back to a time before Karma. As the unlikely pair infiltrate the city, their mission to destabilize the system brings them up against the ruling systems of Karma and—despite the loss of monetary capital—a hierarchy of institutional power that has remained firmly entrenched.

[Read more]

Hugo Spotlight: The Glitz, Glam, and the Heart of Cat Valente’s Space Opera

In the lead-up to the 2019 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s novel and short fiction Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

With the delightfully garish neon tagline “In space, everyone can hear you sing” emblazoned across its cover, Catherynne M. Valente’s novel Space Opera is a marked shift from the seriousness of Deathless (2011) or Palimpsest (2009). It is, in fact, nothing less than intergalactic Eurovision in the fine stylistic tradition of Douglas Adams—madcap, bizarre, comedic, and shot through with a certain wholesome kindness.

[Read more]

Fine and Cruel Threads of Fortune: The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang

The Protector is dead. For the prior three Tensorate novellas, her reign was the source of infinite conflict, concession, and intrigue. However, at the start of The Ascent to Godhood, her passing has already dealt its blow to the organization of the Protectorate. Her enemies and her loyalists both exist in uncertain times, now, striving toward a future she does not influence—but in one pub, in rebel territory, a seeker comes to speak to the head of the Machinist rebellion about the past and potential future. Lady Han is the one person left who has stories of Hekate before her ascent to the throne, and is also the one person who misses her most bitterly, despite the Protector’s death cementing her own success as an opposition force.

[A review.]

To Encourage Reach Exceeding Grasp: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Two far-flung future societies—called Garden and the Agency, respectively—toe through timelines seeding potential, nudging some lives forward and decimating others, with the ultimate goal of preserving their own existence as the inevitable outcome of human culture. As elite agents for their opposing sides, Red and Blue bite at each other’s heels across time and space through dying worlds, long cons, strange pasts and stranger futures. One chance outreach between them, forbidden but irresistible, forges a connection neither could’ve anticipated. Impossible letters wait through centuries for discovery as the pair of them communicate about their goals, their missions, their shared distastes and pleasures—taboo informational liaisons that lead to far more.

One the one hand, This Is How You Lose the Time War is about that titular war: the protagonists are agents undertaking missions to stabilize (or destroy) certain strands in time to benefit their own potential future. On the other, the novella isn’t about the war at all as more than an object lesson, a conceit, the unending and reason-less conflict that consumes generations, centuries, now and forever. And in place of a story about that bigger-than-big conflict, about winning or losing, El-Mohtar and Gladstone weave a romance through letters.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

Now and Forever: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

The Machineries of Empire trilogy wrapped up last June—bringing to a close one of the most engaging, provocative high-concept sf series I’d read in some time. Yoon Ha Lee, however, has not finished with that sprawling universe at large. Hexarchate Stories brings together a set of stories that spans over four-hundred years of worldbuilding and a handful of regime changes, shifting in style and tone from intimate (sometimes sexy!) flash fiction to plot-rich, dramatic tales of intrigue and violence.

Three of the stories in the collection are previously unpublished, including the closing novella “Glass Cannon” (set after Revenant Gun, the third Machineries of Empire novel), while the earliest reprinted piece is from 2012. The scope of initial publications ranges from magazines like Clarkesworld to Lee’s blog, and as such, the length and style of the stories also varies significantly throughout. That level of variation makes for a fast, entertaining reading experience, particularly for a collection of short fiction where all the stories share the same background.

[A review.]

I Made Her From Clay: Broken Places & Outer Spaces by Nnedi Okorafor

Following her compelling talk, “Scifi stories that imagine a future Africa” (2017), the TED Books series now presents Nnedi Okorafor’s Broken Places & Outer Spaces. Part memoir, part craft text, the book is a personal narrative of the route Okorafor took to arrive at her career as a writer of science fiction. In the TED talk, she discusses the roots and influences of her science fiction as an Africanfuturist and reads selections from Binti and Lagoon; in this companion book her approach is more personal, focusing primarily on the life-changing experience of a scoliosis surgery that left her—a college athlete and track star—paralyzed.

Confined to her hospital room and laboring under the emotional and physical pain of her recovery, Okorafor first experiences her creative awakening—a process that comes in fits and starts, as does her rehabilitation. As she reflects on this experience in intense, intimate detail over the course of the book, she also explores what it means to be broken and rebuilt, to be made into something greater than the original form: a cyborg, a futurist, an artist.

[A review.]

All Else We Left Behind: Air Logic by Laurie J. Marks

Just shy of eighteen years since the publication of Marks’ first Elemental Logic novel, the story of Shaftal—of Karis and Zanja and Emil, their spouses and children and loved ones—reaches its conclusion in Air Logic. In the previous volume, an assassination attempt was made on Karis’s government and her person. Though the attempt was foiled, the larger problem of an active resistance in Shaftal to peace with the Sainnites remains unsolved: people in the wind, plotting the overthrow of the G’deon they consider false for her attempt to close out the brutalities of war without seeking vengeance.

As we’ve discussed previously, Marks’s novels argue that progress is only possible if people are able and willing to change—but also to forgive, to allow room for growth and rehabilitation, all at the same time. Finding that third path isn’t a comfortable task. Air logic as it has been represented throughout the series is implacable and the people gifted with it are as well, possessors of rigid internal structures of moral certainty. I’d argue, then, that it makes a great deal of thematic sense for the final book to have a vested interest in exploring the problem of rigid certainties and inflexible beliefs as a stumbling block on the path to peace.

[Onward – essay contains spoilers.]

To Make Ethical Decisions, Be An Ethical Person: Water Logic by Laurie J. Marks

Time and water share characteristics, moving in currents, eddies, flows—and that fluid, continual circulation animates the third novel in Marks’s Elemental Logic series. In a similar vein to its namesake, Water Logic is a subtler book than the crackling Fire Logic, yet more capriciously changeable than Earth Logic. It might seem odd to call this novel subtle, considering that its central conceit is an upheaval in the timeline that drags Zanja two hundred years into Shaftal’s past, but its arguments are by design less concretely executed and more illustrated as a dance of ideas.

With the war finally ended but resentments and conflict still festering, the dilemma facing the new combined governance of Shaftal is no longer political first and cultural second. There’s a political center in place, but its reach to change the social order in far-flung, significant ways relies less on given law and more on the ability to conceptualize and spread a narrative of change. What’s needed are stories for a new society, a path that stretches past the door Medric opened with his A History of My Father’s People. In that sense, Water Logic is as philosophical as the prior books were political, a slight but dynamic reorganization of narrative priorities.

[Onward.]

We all have choices, don’t we? Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Ivy Gamble is an almost-solvent private investigator based out of the gentrifying Bay Area, working from her basement office to resolve insurance disputes and prove marital infidelities. She’s making do, at least, until an unwanted client brings her a case she can’t refuse (or, chooses not to refuse): there has been a violent death among the staff at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages and the headmaster believes it was murder. The sizable paycheck draws Ivy into the world she’s spent her adult life trying to avoid—a subculture of magic and privilege where her twin sister Tabitha has been flourishing since their teen years, now an instructor herself.

The murdered staff member, teenagers with their hierarchies, a chosen-one’s prophecy, and worse all pull Ivy in contradictory directions as she arrives to take on her first homicide investigation. Faced with her estranged sister—the better, more magical, more accomplished sibling—she also has personal problems to juggle alongside her detective work. However, all is not as it seems at Osthorne, and pleasant privileged surfaces often have quite a lot to hide.

[A review.]

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