The phenomenon of colony-collapse disorder, the sudden mass disappearance of bees, has become so widespread that much of the world although not, as yet, Finland is facing agricultural and ecological disaster.
Amateur beekeeper Orvo, devastated by the recent death of his eco-warrior son, finds two of his hives deserted and begins to fear that the epidemic has reached Scandinavia. Then, in the attic of the old barn, he makes a mystical and frightening discovery: a pathway to a parallel world. Is it a hallucination stimulated by sorrow and loss or is it something very real and connected with the bees disappearance? His research teaches him that in practically every culture bees are viewed as half-supernatural messengers that can travel between worlds and are associated with resurrection and the afterlife. He begins to wonder if this portal could reunite him with his dead son and whether he can himself escape the ecological meltdown of this world.
The Blood of Angels reworks the Orpheus myth while analysing modern man’s need to deny his mortality and raise himself above the rest of nature, to compare himself to the angels but at what price?
Sinisalo’s writing, and her approach to nature, have been remarked upon as precursors to the approach to the weird taken by Jeff VanderMeer in Area X; having read this novel, that seems to do both a disservice, as they are doing profoundly different things with the environment, but there is no doubt that Blood of Angels has some of the same concerns as Area X, and some of the same presentations.
The similarity is in the understanding of the numinous in nature; Blood of Angels has a reverence and respect for nature throughout its pages, especially bees. It consistently mystifies and weirds nature, makes it strange, barely relatable to humanity; Sinisalo highlights the differences between how we live and nature, how we divorce ourselves from nature, and especially death. It’s a fascinating take on the kind of weird written by Algernon Blackwood, but whereas his sympathy was with man, making nature horrific, Sinisalo makes man horrific, alienates us from ourselves and civilisation, and making nature numinous but also truer, somehow.
It’s intensified by the animal rights theme that comes up in excerpts from the blog of animal rights activist Eero, son of our protagonist Orvo, which emphasises both the similarities and differences between humans and animals, arguing for equal rights from the position of similar-but-different approaches to man and beast. Blood of Angels uses the blog excellently; Sinisalo not only has entries, but comments, and entries coming off comments to previous entries, making it feel like a truly organic blog, the sort of political blog that has sprung up on the internet, with the kind of brashness and rudeness from both blogger and commenters that we have become inured to. It has an interested effect in a novel, shocking the reader with the violence of internet rhetoric, as if a novel should be a more genteel place, as if that vitriol should not infiltrate its pages; but the more traditional chapters of Blood of Angels can also contain that same vitriol and yet it feels totally normal, an interesting comparison.
Sinisalo’s work should not just be analysed on a political level, however, but also on its merits as a novel. Blood of Angels manages one of the most impressive feats I have seen in a novel, that of making a fully fleshed-out character who only appears in the occasional, brief comment on a blog; this is how Tirsu, especially, is manifested, a very real presence in the novel even while never actually appearing in person, and having so few lines dedicated to them. Pupa is similarly clearly portrayed, appearing only in Orvo’s memories, and Ari, who appears only briefly in the whole novel, is very clearly characterised as the money-hungry grubby businessman who will sacrifice anything for profit. It’s an interesting cast in that regard; characters fall on one side or the other of the ethics/profit line, with Orvo straddling it in his roles as undertaker and beekeper. Sinisalo keeps the balance excellently, and through character interactions Blood of Angels challenges orthodoxies on both sides, a difficult trick; yet Sinisalo keeps it meaningful and orthodoxies reveal as much about characters as they do about politics.
The blurb describes this as an Orphic retelling, and spoils a central aspect of the plot that Sinisalo semi-conceals for much of the novel, the death of Eero; Blood of Angels has one particularly Orphic passage, but otherwise is about the process of grieving, of the painful emotional coming to terms with death, and of how this can fail. Rather than being about an attempt to retrieve one’s love for oneself, the loss is concealed for much of the novel, there but not known, some strange cloud hanging over Orvo; when revealed it changes everything that has gone before, and Sinisalo’s concealment makes an awful lot of sense and proves a very interesting piece of character-work.
Blood of Angels is truly a stunning novel of nature, and a strange and numinous work; Johanna Sinisalo has produced a wonderful text here, that I’ll readily recommend.
Carlos Delacruz is one of the New York Council of the Dead’s most unusual agents—an inbetweener, partially resurrected from a death he barely recalls suffering, after a life that’s missing from his memory. He thinks he is one of a kind—until he encounters other entities walking the fine line between life and death.
One inbetweener is a sorcerer. He’s summoned a horde of implike ngks capable of eliminating spirits, and they’re spreading through the city like a plague. They’ve already taken out some of NYCOD’s finest, leaving Carlos desperate to stop their master before he opens up the entrada to the Underworld—which would destroy the balance between the living and the dead.
But in uncovering this man’s identity, Carlos confronts the truth of his own life—and death.…
Older’s debut novel, Half-Resurrection Blues feels like an update of the urban fantasy formula for the twenty-first century: a cast dominated by people of colour, in a New York dominated (at least in Carlos’ circle) by people of colour, where people of colour can take all sorts of roles – including being queer. Older has long been outspoken on the importance of diversity in our literature, and this novel feels like it might be him setting out his stall to sell the rest of us on the idea; the diversity of his cast isn’t heavy-handed or emphasised, it just is, built into his world the way it is in ours. Half-Resurrection Blues has queer people of colour in a happy relationship, has business-owning people of colour, has all kinds of people; and Older has simply written the world he observes, rather than the whitewashed one we’re often presented with.
There is one respect in which Half-Resurrection Blues is less diverse than most urban fantasy, mind you, and that’s in its supernatural. Older has ghosts, humans, and the inbetweeners… and that’s it; no werewolves or vampires in sight, a refreshing change from much of the genre. That doesn’t mean Older doesn’t have a number of tricks up his sleeve; there are some other ghostbusting ghastlies in there (the ngks), and spirits are much scarier than you might think from films like Casper or Ghostbusters, more reminiscent of the hungry spirits of the Homeric underworld than an angelic choir with harps. This lets Older create a real sense of dread, without easy answers; there’s no silver bullet here, no holy water and cross, only grim determination and stubborn dedication to finding a way out. That’s a real strength of Half-Resurrection Blues, and it comes through incredibly strongly that there are no easy fixes in this world.
It’s also a feature of the protagonist of the novel, Carlos Delacruz. Delacruz steadily comes apart across the course of the novel as competing demands pull at his attention and his soul, and Older records this stunningly in first person; from drunken levity with ghostly acquaintances to the agony of having been pinned to a couch with his own sword, we really get inside Carlos’ head, and Half-Resurrection Blues is extremely good at making this a very vivid thing. Grief is crushing, levity is lifting, and when Carlos is struggling, the prose isn’t a struggle to read but it makes the reader feel his struggle. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, especially over the length of a novel, but Older has definitely mastered it in his debut.
Carlos isn’t the only vivid character though; Half-Resurrection Blues is full of little grace-notes of characterisation, from Kia, the assistant to/manager of Baba Eddie the santero, to Baba Eddie himself (the way Older describes him lighting up is amazing, and gives so much character to him through such a simple process), to Baba Eddie’s partner the businessman Russell, who only appears briefly; but also the spirits, Riley and Dro especially, both of whom Older suffuses with a sense of frustration and futility that is, again, Homeric in scope and kind (cf. Hom. Od. 11.545ff). Half-Resurrection Blues is a novel that is paradoxically full of life, from the house-ghost Mama Esther to the brief appearances of characters like Victor; but also with a hole at its centre, the central antagonist, almost vampiric on the way he sucks life out of the novel. It’s an amazing feat of writing to make him such a black hole in the narrative without making him simply the embodiment of evil; rather, Older makes it clear he’s got his own agenda, and in his own eyes is doing good – but doesn’t let him become some kind of antihero either, a really good piece of writing.
If there is one criticism to lay at the feet of this novel, it’s that Older’s pace really does flag at times. While on the whole Half-Resurrection Blues is an absolute breeze to read, there are times when Carlos is floundering about that just feel slack, where keeping reading can become quite difficult; and there are points when the narrative gets bogged down with itself, slowing to a crawl, frustrating the reader with the choppiness and uneveness of it. But on the whole it does have a very fast clip and drags the reader through the novel, not pausing for breath; which perhaps makes those moments when it does stagger all the more noticable.
Half-Resurrection Blues is, though, an urban fantasy novel for the twenty first century, for the reality of a diverse world, and for those who enjoy fun books. Praise to Daniel José Older for such a successfully executed debut.
As the first new godling born in thousands of years — and the heir presumptive to Sieh the Trickster — Shill’s got big shoes to fill. She’s well on her way when she defies her parents and sneaks off to the mortal realm, which is no place for an impressionable young god. In short order she steals a demon’s grandchild, gets herself embroiled in a secret underground magical dance competition, and offends her oldest and most powerful sibling.
But for Eino, the young Darren man whom Shill has befriended, the god-child’s silly games are serious business. Trapped in an arranged marriage and prohibited from pursuing his dreams, he has had enough. He will choose his own fate, even if he must betray a friend in the process — and Shill might just have to grow up faster than she thinks.
I talked about N. K. Jemisin in a post back in May last year, and specifically about the Inheritance Trilogy. This novella was written for inclusion in the omnibus edition of the trilogy, a might tome of over 1400 pages; and takes place after the events of the entire trilogy have concluded, so talking about The Awakened Kingdom involves spoiling the novels somewhat. So,
The Awakened Kingdom is centred on a new godling, created to fill the void left by Sieh’s death. It’s a coming of age story, but an unusual one; Jemisin manages to pack the entire coming of age story of a human into two months in a godling’s life, and since the story is told in first person, also conveys that sense of maturation and growth in her style. The story starts with a very enthusiastic but not terribly coherent and easily distractable narrator, and closes with a narrator with a greater sense of the world and an emotional weight that really is meaningful; Jemisin handles this transition across the course of The Awakened Kingdom very impressively, so that by the end it is clear we’re being told the narrative by a mature individual.
It’s also a very dense novella. For just over a hundred pages, Jemisin packs a lot of things into The Awakened Kingdom; the necessity of compromise, the responsibility that comes with power, the nature of privilege and how carefully it must be dealt with, and the vitality of individual agency. There’s also critique of the patriarchy, in the form of critique of a matriarchy in the novel; Jemisin switches that up so excellently that the reader is almost thrown by it, but when we get down to the serious critique which takes place it becomes obvious just how Jemisin is talking about this world. Jemisin has always been a political writer in some sense of the term, and that is no different here; she uses the coming of age story to also talk about a coming to political consciousness for her protagonist, and The Awakened Kingdom is stronger for it.
The cast Jemisin presents us with is unexpectedly small, given the huge casts of the rest of the Inheritance Trilogy; aside from our narrator there are five or six other significant, recurring characters, each of whom has to play a major part in the maturation of our young godling. They are each unique and bring an interesting perspective to the story, whether that be a youth rebelling against the strictures of his society, a mother enforcing those strictures on her son, a woman who is trained to help godlings come to themselves and has to learn how to do it, a godling who doesn’t have any interest in helping anyone yet does anyway, and more. Each has a very distinct personality and viewpoint, and Jemisin makes sure The Awakened Kingdom has sympathy with all of them; this isn’t a didactic political tract, or rather, it’s a thoughtful one, which acknowledges both sides of a debate even while coming down on one of those sides.
Really, that idea of balance is at the heart of The Awakened Kingdom; balance between genders, balance between individual friends, balance between parent and child, between romantic partners, between young and old. Jemisin has always written fascinatingly on topics around social justice, but has not addressed in quite so head on a manner what that justice means, or how to claim it; but here, the idea of power and its proper use, of how to claim power, of the vital importance of balance to power and justice, are all at the core of the novella.
The Awakened Kingdom is a fascinating, beautiful and very readable exploration of those questions, and I heartily recommend it to you, along with the rest of Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.
33 outstanding science fiction stories by women
Travel by train to the Moon, discover living spaceships born in gas giants and explore the constellations, alternate universes and post-apocalyptic worlds of this compelling collection of SF written by women.
Whether crossing the stars or constructing the future of our planet, women have always written powerful, important science fiction. This anthology showcases the most exceptional SF stories written by women in recent decades, from classic stars Ursula K. Le Guin and Angélica Gorodischer; science fiction greats Karen Joy Fowler and Nancy Kress; new award-winning talents Elizabeth Bear, Nnedi Okorafor and Aliette de Bodard; and many more.
Alex Dally MacFarlane’s anthology of reprints of science fiction by women sits in a long tradition, including the Women of Wonder series and, of course, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, however, includes no story not published in English for the last time in the past two decades, and every writer MacFarlane has reprinted is still alive.
This is a stunningly broad collection. MacFarlane has clearly put a lot of thought into the diversity of her contributors; two of the stories are in translation (‘Invisible Planets’ by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu, and ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula Le Guin). MacFarlane has included a wide variety of experiences of the world; where Despatches was overwhelmingly white, …SF Stories by Women takes in post-colonial stories, African-American authors, authors who are also immigrants, and a wide variety of kinds of story, some of which are barely science fiction (although they certainly fit under the speculative fiction category).
The absolutely outstanding set of stories for me are those which are clearly not from a Western perspective, whether it be Nalo Hopkinson’s mythopoetic ‘Tan-Tan and Dry Bone’ written in Jamaican English or Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’, a beautiful, heartbreaking story about the cost of performing one’s culture for those who have colonised it. Loenen-Ruiz is well known as a post-colonialist/anti-colonialist writer, and it is something that comes across powerfully in this story, as a scathing criticism of the idea of the ‘benevolent empire’. MacFarlane’s politics are known to lie in this direction and that affects her choice of stories; no core Baen work here, no Sarah Hoyt to be seen, but rather a selection of stories which are both powerful and beautiful but also have messsages.
That means MacFarlane’s anthology is far more cohesive than Green and Lefanu made Despatches…; the theme of women’s writing as political runs through the selection of stories, as there is ‘[n]o such thing as “just a good story” without a political message’ (Ann Leckie), and women writing is inherently a political act given their social position. The best stories are those that embrace the experiences of their writers, those such as Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Spider the Artist’, a brilliantly well-written story that is about Africa, but not the usual perspective of SF on Africa; this is urban, modern, and not about exoticisation. It’s what African SF should be, not what white Western writers often make it.
That isn’t to say MacFarlane has assembled a perfect anthology, of course. For instance, I would have liked to see more than two stories in translation, even if …SF Stories by Women draws from across the world for its authors. But there are also stories that don’t stand up to the quality of those around them; Greer Gilman’s ‘Down The Wall’ feels like very typical post-apocalyptic fare that we have seen done much better elsewhere, and Nancy Kress’ ‘Ej-Es’ would be better if it wasn’t trying quite so hard to tug the heartstrings of its reader. Both of these are playing in territory that is heartland SF, but both are playing in that territory without being at the top of their game; there are other, better writers who have accomplished better stories than these.
There are some outstanding stories, head-and-shoulders above the rest of the anthology in my opinion, that MacFarlane has found, though. …SF Stories by Women has the amazing ‘Stay Thy Flight’ by Élisabeth Vonarburg is a stunning story that uses time and Classical tropes to discuss art, life, humanity’s response to the other and more in a most amazing, facscinating way; whereas Carrie Vaughn’s environmentalist romance ‘Astrophilia’ is a paean to the value and importance of theoretical knowledge and a beautiful (lesbian) love story, sweetly and simply told. Both contrast in their slowness to the way Hao Jingfang’s ‘Invisible Planets’ is structured; reminiscent of Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar, it is a series of tales of different planets, interspersed by the responses to interjections from the listener. It’s a beautiful tale, although arguably its conclusion rules it out from being SF and makes it realist fiction; MacFarlane did well to find and include this particular piece, and Ken Liu’s translation is smooth and straightforward, reading very poetically.
In the end, the best thing to say about this excellent-albeit-not-perfect anthology is said by MacFarlane at the end of her introduction to The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women: “Look at what women have written. Enjoy.”
FAIRYTALES FOR LOST CHILDREN is narrated by people constantly on the verge of self-revelation. These characters – young, gay and lesbian Somalis – must navigate the complexities of family, identity and the immigrant experience as they tumble towards freedom. Set in Kenya, Somalia and South London, these stories are imbued with pathos, passion and linguistic playfulness, marking the arrival of a singular new voice in contemporary fiction.
Fairytales for Lost Children came across my radar primarily through Roxane Gay, but the idea of a selection of short stories based around immigration, homosexuality, and African life was immediately appealing.
Osman’s collection is a short one – barely 150 pages – and made up of 11 stories and illustrations; the art is line drawings in what we might describe as a traditional African artistic style, but also incorporating Arabic and elements of modern political cartooning into it. They bear at first glance little relation to the stories they illustrate, but give a flavour of Fairytales For Lost Children; the mixed cultural heritage, the imagery of gender-transgression, and in many cases a certain flirtiness to the portraiture combine to create a sense similar to that of the stories.
Those stories are a revelation. Osman’s writing is incredibly human, incredibly gentle, and incredibly visceral; by gentle, I don’t mean that Fairytales for Lost Children pretends life is better than it is, but rather than Osman slips into the lives of his characters, brings the reader with him for a brief snapshot, and then slips out again. Whether it is Zeytun, the protagonist of ‘Earthling’, a schizophrenic lesbian who has to deal with the loss of her sister, or Hassin, of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, an immigrant in London who is isolated and longs to build a relationship, Osman creates whole characters, human characters, in a very short space, and brings them painfully to life. There is a degree to which most of these stories are tragedies, but at the same time, some have true catharsis at their close, such as ‘Earthling’; despite being on the surface horrendous stories, they have a sense of rightness and closure about them too.
Fairytales for Lost Children is ineluctably erotic; almost all the stories include Osman describing sex, although the stories of women loving women tend to have less of this, but ‘My Roots Are Your Roots’ is practically pure pornography, beautifully evocative erotic writing that mixes at once the idea of immigrant communities, the homophobia that traditional families sometimes bring with them, the exclusion from both community and country that this can create, but also the idea of the gay community and the community of love. It’s a strange story, at once dark and light, sexual and playful but also threatening; of release and ending all at once, wonderfully.
Osman is also wide-ranging. His stories touch a mix of experiences; queer youth (‘Shoga’, ‘Fairytales for Lost Children’); queer life in Somalia (‘Watering the Imagination’, about being the parent of a lesbian; ‘Shoga’ again); about being an immigrant (‘The Other (Wo)Man’, among others); about mental illness (‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You’), but also a variety of different kinds of queerness. As well as homosexuality, and the gender-transgression of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, there is the genderqueer protagonist of ‘Pavilion’, presented with humour and affection by Osman, but without becoming a comedic character; Fairytales for Lost Children never sympathises more with oppressor than oppressed, but does have a certain sympathy for the oppressor, the straight, the cis. Osman seems to understand the imperatives that make people discriminate against, attack, verbally abuse queer people; and he presents those who do this as human too, especially the relatives of the queers he is portraying.
It’s a fascinating, beautiful, haunting collection that won’t leave the reader happy, per se, but will leave one satisfied and wanting more all at once; Osman, in Fairytales for Lost Children, has unleashed a truly amazing collection on the world that every queer-basher, and every racist anti-immigrant demagogue, should be forced to read. It drips empathy off every page, and that’s a rare, and beautiful, thing.
Some while ago, back in January last year, whilst still on my Masters course, I did a module on Classical Receptions. As part of that, we were required, inevitably, to write an essay on some form of reception of the Classical world; and, as this blog demonstrates, I have a strong interest in comics. At the time, Kieron Gillen’s & Ryan Kelly’s Three was just coming to an end (issue #4 came out in January 2014), and was in very explicit and direct conversation with Frank Miller and Lynne Varley’s 300, so I decided that – since I had the opportunity to do so, I would compare the two works in one specific aspect.
The aspect I chose was perhaps not the best; the Spartan rite of passage known as the κρυπτεία (krypteia) is shrouded in mystery, even down to what it actually consisted of or who took part. However, both 300 and Three attempt to show it, and use it for dramatic purposes; and while an essay on their presentation of helotage would have been interesting, in light of the fact that 300 completely ignores it would also have been a rather unbalanced piece.
So, I’m attaching here a piece of work I handed in on January 17th, 2014 to the University of Glasgow, about the comparative presentation of the κρυπτεία in 300 and Three. It’s long, and written in academese, but I hope you enjoy anyway!
Marvels, myth and microchips from classic writers of science fiction, and a dazzling array of new authors. From farflung planets to Greenham Common, from distant futures to the here and now, the stories explore the myriad possibilities of women’s lives: women under attack, women in control, women alone and women together. With stories set in societies barely recognisable, and societies only too credible, this collection comes from the frontiers and offers a glimpse of what lies beyond.
Published in 1985 by The Women’s Press, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind is an anthology almost entirely of original work (Joanna Russ’ story is a reprint) by female science fiction authors, many of whom have now faded from view; it’s not a comprehensive overview of the field at the time, but it is a broad look at what was being written.
The absolute stand-out stories are two political ones by significant, and enduring, names in (feminist) science fiction, Joanna Russ and Raccoona Sheldon (who also wrote under another pseudonym as the “ineluctably masculine” James Tiptree Jr). The first, Russ’, is as much parody as itself a story; framed by the idea of possession by an evil spirit, ‘The Clichés From Outer Space’ sees Russ parody the approaches to women taken in much science fiction, ripping to shreds the matriarchal utopia, the matriarchal dystopia, the equalist society and the future-patriarchy of stated-but-unseen equality. Each of these is in itself riotously hilarious, but Russ’ comments at the end of each, and her acerbic framing of the whole thing, raises this above the simply joy of parody to absolutely brilliant brutality.
‘Morality Meat’, on the other hand, is a very downbeat story, a political warning rather than a literary joke. Sheldon’s story is very bluntly about a woman’s right to choose, and about the socioeconomic gap she saw developing in society under Reagan; it’s a fantastic tale, slowly revealing the darkness at its heart that is hinted at from the very opening of the story but doesn’t get confirmed right until the end of the piece. ‘Morality Meat’ is the darkest story in here, and Sheldon carries that darkness off amazingly, and believably.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of stories in the anthology are very political, whether it is Josephine Saxton’s broadside against advertising culture in ‘Big Operation on Altair Three’ or Lisa Tuttle’s environmentalism and anti-nuclear ‘From A Sinking Ship’, with its startling similarity in premise to elements of the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some take a more broad view of politics, such as the far-ranging ‘The Awakening’ by Pearlie McNeill or ‘The Insurrection’ by Gwyneth Jones, where others are incredibly particular, such as Zoe Fairbairns’ story of Greenham Common, ‘Relics’. They’re not subtle but nor are any simply diatribes, all working their politics into stories that are good in and of themselves.
Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind does have one or two stories that I felt didn’t belong, including the closer of the anthology, Sue Thomason’s ‘Apples In Winter’; trying to be mythic, it ends up simply dragging, in a style that doesn’t seem to suit anything, including itself. Similarly, Pamela Zoline’s ‘Instructions for Exiting This Building In Case of Fire’ has a good core, and some great moments, but on the whole the mix of scale between abstract intentionally-fictional and concrete pseudo-real is a little broken, and the concept at the heart of the story is nearly nonsensical.
In the 1980s, queerness was a big part of feminism, so it is no surprise to see it come up time and again in these stories. The most interesting of these is Tanith Lee’s ‘Love Alters’, which is a brilliant, dark satire on the treatment of gay relationships and the way it is societal norms, not heterosexuality per se, that is the problem. Lee convincingly creates her world in very short order, and proceeds to highlight the extent to which that world is ours, just twisted only a little, and it works incredibly well. Similarly, Mary Gentle’s ‘A Sun in the Attic’ is an interesting little steampunk tale about the dangers of discovery, but it includes a society based on multiple-marriage; bisexuality and polyamory are both completely normalised parts of society, it seems, and Gentle plays with some of the implications of that as the story wends towards its Galilean conclusion.
Despatches From the Frontiers of the Female Mind is, perhaps inevitably, a bit dated now, and some of these concerns seem less relevant; but some of them are shockingly present now, and Green & Lefanu’s selection, whilst including a few duds, is overall excellent. An anthology very much worth your time.