content by

Brit Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Degrees of Ownership: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Autonomous is a stand-alone novel set in a near-future world rearranged into economic zones, controlled at large by property law and a dystopic evolution of late-stage capitalism. The points of view alternate between two sides of a skirmish over a patent drug that has catastrophic side-effects: one of our protagonists is a pirate who funds humanitarian drug releases with “fun” drug sales and another is an indentured bot who works for the IPC to crush piracy. As their missions collide, other people are caught up in the blast radius.

While many sf readers are familiar with Newitz, either in her capacity as editor of io9 or as a writer of compelling nonfiction and short stories, this is her first foray into the world of novels and it’s a powerful debut. Wrapped up in a quick, action-oriented plot are a set of sometimes-unresolved and provocative arguments about property law, autonomy, and ownership. Issues of gender and sexuality are also a through-line, considering one of our main characters is a bot whose approach to gender is by necessity quite different than that of their human counterparts.

[A review.]

A Return, A Revision: The River Bank by Kij Johnson

A sequel and response to Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s book The Wind in the Willows, Kij Johnson’s The River Bank returns to the titular neighborhood of charming animals and their troubles. The bachelors of the River Bank—Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad—are thrown into confusion when two young female animals, Beryl the Mole and a Rabbit, rent a cottage up the lane and join their community. There are misunderstandings, adventures, kidnappings and ransoms; The River Bank is a jaunty story.

Johnson, best known for her award-winning short fiction directed toward an adult audience, has gone for something rather different than her usual with this novel. When I saw the title announced, several months prior to this, I was not expecting it to be a follow-up to a world famous children’s book—especially given that the last piece I read by Johnson was The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (reviewed here), a mature and thoughtful novella using cosmic horror tropes to intriguing effect.

[A review.]

Approaches to the Fantastic: The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman

Jacob Weisman notes in his introduction to The New Voices of Fantasy that it is, in some sense, a successor to Peter S. Beagle’s previous anthology The Secret History of Fantasy (2010)—a follow up on the idea of an exploding field of literary fantastic stories appearing over a wide range of publications. This collection focuses specifically on writers who are in the early stages of their careers, with all stories included “published after 2010.” Considering the seven-year range that encompasses, it’s a bit broader than a new-writers collection focusing on folks in their first few years of publication.

However, this also gives Weisman and Beagle a wealth of stories to choose from to represent the tone and caliber of the movement they’re pointing to in fantastic fiction. These are charming stories, often focused on the personal experience of a character, and all are fantastical in scope rather than scientific, though their approaches do have some variation. The New Voices of Fantasy includes stories in modes from the mythic to the horrific, with some traditional approaches mixed in as well.

[Read more]

I Never Fight: In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is a stand-alone portal fantasy in which the reader follows Elliot Schafer—a redheaded bisexual boy with a fantastically bad attitude and sharp tongue—through his adolescence, primarily spent in a magical land on the other side of a mostly-invisible border wall located in rural England. Elliot, at age thirteen, is thoroughly acquainted with the tropes of portal fantasies; this is, in large part, the reason he decides to abandon his damaging home life for the unknown.

However, it turns out that “the unknown” isn’t a world that needs a magical protagonist to save it. Instead, he finds himself in a militant and conflict-ravaged country where alliances are falling apart as councilors are funneled out of war-rooms and bad treaties spring up like mushrooms after a rain. So, naturally, our young protagonist—himself a pacifist—decides to turn his considerable abilities in study and manipulation to improving the world he finds himself in. He also, at the same time, begins forging the relationships that will save his life and the political future of his new country.

[A review.]

For a Revolution: The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo

First in a duet from Leena Likitalo, The Five Daughters of the Moon is a second-world fantasy inspired by the Russian Revolution. The narrative follows the five sisters of the royal family as their empire collapses around them, driven in part by youthful idealism and in part by cruel magic and manipulation. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different sister, from the youngest Alina who sees the world of shadows to the oldest Celestia who has become involved with the scientist-sorcerer Gagargi Prataslav.

Representing the revolution from the interior of the royal family, Likitalo is able to explore a range of reactions and levels of awareness; Elise and Celestia are aware of the suffering in their empire and wish to support a revolution that will address it, while the younger three are more aware of the horrible magic and undercurrents of betrayal surrounding Prataslav, but no one will listen to their concerns. This mismatch leads to the beginning of the collapse of the empire itself.

[A review, with spoilers.]

The Laundry Files Pits Computational Demonologists Against Nihilism

In a previous post on Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series, I noted that one of the strengths of the books is that they are “aggressively contemporary treatises that stand against nihilism and in support of communal resistance, support, and human will.” By this I mean that the series is grounded in our political and cultural moment—for example, smartphones and CCTV and the rise of right-wing extremism across the globe—but also ups the ante exponentially in its addition of cosmic, incomprehensible threats that cross dimensions and realities to devour us all.

In the face of this scale of destruction, with an unwitting populace on one hand and a gridlocked government on the other, the protagonists must reject defeatist beliefs and band together to steal their victories, Pyrrhic though they might sometimes be. Because, in truth, nihilism is the creeping force that underlies the horror of the stars coming aligned in the Laundry Files universe. While the various color-coded case plans for different potential apocalypses are monstrous enough on their lonesome, the rejection of principle and ethics on the basis that it’s all meaningless anyway is the true danger.


Already Home: Telling the Map by Christopher Rowe

Telling the Map, the first full collection from multiple award nominee Christopher Rowe, features nine previously published stories spanning from 2003 to 2015 as well as an original novella, “The Border State.” These stories are, for the most part, all set in the near- or near-enough-future, exploring a post-Scarcity collapse and restructure of our recognizable social order through a variety of lenses.

However, there is one other consistent thread running through the entirety of the collection, and that is setting. In Telling the Map, Rowe has rendered Kentucky over and over again with a lush, loving, bone-deep accuracy—one that startled and thrilled me so thoroughly, as a fellow native son, that I had to read the book through twice to begin to form a critical opinion.

It’s an objectively good collection of pieces, but it’s also a collection that sang to me in particular.

[A review.]

An Exercise in Governmental Restructuring: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Another eagerly-awaited installment in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files, The Delirium Brief returns us to Bob Howard’s point of view in a direct continuation of the events of The Nightmare Stacks. With the previously-clandestine Laundry, the British occult secret services, made public due to the invasion of a nasty species of elves, Bob and our familiar cast of characters must take on a unique threat: governmental interference and restructuring.

Faced with the lethal consequences of poor government intervention on their institution, the agents of the Laundry must make a drastic decision—to go rogue and consider “the truly unthinkable: a coup against the British government itself,” as the flap copy says. Other pieces on the board are also moving, including a servant of the Sleeper in the Pyramid previously presumed dead and the American equivalent agency going off the reservation. Howard also has his personal life to contend with, given that he’s become the Eater of Souls and his estranged wife Mo has suffered a great deal of field trauma of her own.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Green Sky at Night, Hacker’s Delight: The Function of Tropes in The Laundry Files

The Atrocity Archives was initially published in 2004, meaning Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series has been going strong for thirteen years. Currently consisting of eight novels and a handful of spinoff novellas and short stories, the series has maintained a freshness that is often lacking in long-running properties—and that is largely due to Stross’s tongue-in-cheek critical appropriation of common genre tropes as fodder for the novels.

Speculative fiction is without fail a referential genre: concerned with the past and future, of course, but also with the sly nudge and wink of one “insider” to another. That tendency is regularly uncritical or self-involved, but with his deliberate, sometimes-savage usage of tropes in the Laundry Files, Stross manipulates and expands the function of the intertextual reference for an action oriented series. The result is a delightful medley of clever commentary and engaging plot that never fails to keep me interested on all fronts.


The Shape of the Word/World: Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

Amatka is the debut novel of Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, a concise, elegant exploration of language and creation in the tradition of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin. Tidbeck is the previous winner of the Crawford Award and has also been shortlisted for other honors, including the World Fantasy Award. In her first full length novel she sets up a fantastic secondary world, at once surreal and disturbingly concrete, where words are the seat of power—and Vanja, our protagonist, is at the center of a radical shift in that language.

Vanja has crossed from her colony to another, the titular Amatka, for the purpose of researching hygiene products to best assist her company with the expansion of a private trade market. However, she is drawn in two directions once she arrives: a romantic relationship with her assigned housemate for the stay, Nina, and a prickling awareness that something has gone awry with the structure of Amatka’s colony. As Vanja seeks to tie together the threads of the commune’s cover-ups and manipulations, she stumbles on a far greater forbidden knowledge.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Self-Conscious Stories: Tender by Sofia Samatar

Tender is a book-length collection of short fiction from Sofia Samatar, a brilliant Somali-American writer whose work has been nominated for several genre awards over the past few years. Samatar is also the winner of both the John W. Campbell and Crawford Awards—so, suffice to say she is doing consistently fantastic work, and Tender gathers much of that work together in one place for the first time.

Divided into two sections, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” this collection includes two original stories as well as eighteen reprints. “An Account of the Land of Witches” and “Fallow” are the two fresh publications here, both in the landscapes section of the book. The reprints range from 2012 to now in terms of their initial appearances, and also span a wide range of publications.

[A review.]

A Collaborative, Global, Intersectional Art Project: Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar, and Anita Roy) is a collection of collaborative works between Australian and Indian creators—artists and writers both—inspired by feminist principles and the global struggle of girls in patriarchy. As the introduction notes, brutal crimes against young women in late 2012 in both countries sparked protest and activism; the world took notice, too. The anthology was born out of these conversations about “the fate of all young women,” and as the title emphasizes, it is about “impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone.”

The notable thing about this collection for young readers isn’t just that it came out of feminist principles, but also that it’s doing something I don’t see often at all: pairing up creators from different fields and cultures to create collaborative stories based on the theme. It creates a unique tone in the anthology, wherein it seems clear that everyone is experimenting and playing off of one another. In a sense, it reads more like an art project than a short story collection.

[A review.]

On the Cosmic Scale: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

There are pieces on the board: the Signalman, an agent for a blackbudget American service; a cult ranch-house at the Salton Sea that houses horrors from another world; a lost film about an alien princess; a timeless and frightening agent from another service with her own motivations; the New Horizons probe skating past the orbit of Pluto and encountering something alien. These singular events and people all feed into the start—or end—of something immense and devastating for the human species.

I have been continually impressed with the novella imprint, as it offers a unique and necessary venue for quality long-form fiction that doesn’t exist elsewhere—and Agents of Dreamland is no exception to that rule. The novella form allows Kiernan to construct a discomfiting narrative that skips like a stone across water, sketching out a brief but provocative landscape of fright and inevitability for our planet up against Lovecraftian cosmic horrors. It’s long enough to develop intense investment but short enough to leave unanswered and unanswerable questions about the future it implies.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Birth, Death, Rebirth: The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars are Legion, recently released from Saga Press, is a stand-alone novel from the same woman who brought us The Bel Dame Apocrypha and The Geek Feminist Revolution. Set in a scattered belt of dying world-ships referred to as the Legion by the people who have access to the surfaces of the world, the novel mixes the trappings of quest narratives and space opera. Zan, our protagonist, awakes injured and with no memories—finding herself in the control of a group of women who claim to be her family, but seem to treat her more like a conscript.

She is told she must gain control of the Mokshi, a travelling world-ship that repels all invaders, to save the world of her so-called family. However, other ruling families in the Legion are also seeking to gain control of it and therefore bring salvage and life to their own decaying homes. Through a sprawling set of intrigues, Zan must discover her own past and determine the path to a future that she can survive.

[Read more]

Queer/Historical Magic: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

In contemporary San Francisco, an elderly woman spends her final afternoon alive retrieving an old and fragile piece of art from storage and selling it to an unscrupulous rare books dealer for mysterious reasons. Then, cut back to the nightlife of 1940s San Francisco, the same woman is party to the introduction of Emily—a young woman who has escaped from family censure—and Haskel, a bisexual artist who paints for the pulps. Emily and Haskel hit it off, as part of a small circle of likeminded women, and their romance takes them to the corners of the Magic City of the World’s Fair, but also to the edge of real magic.

Passing Strange is a queer historical novella with a healthy dose of magical realism—a combination sure to enrapture a specific audience, of which I am certainly one. Klages renders the reality of life for queer women in the ’40s with a matter of fact and honest level of detail. While the novella doesn’t flinch from the difficulties of oppression and abuse, as a whole it has a remarkably uplifting tone: these are women who have made lives together and will continue on into the future, in whatever ways they can.

[A review.]