Intellectus Speculativus

Home » 2017 » December

Monthly Archives: December 2017

Barbary Station by R. E. Stearns

barbary-station-9781481476867_hr
Two engineers hijack a spaceship to join some space pirates — only to discover the pirates are hiding from a malevolent AI. Now they have to outwit the AI if they want to join the pirate crew — and survive long enough to enjoy it.

Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.

But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury — they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave — so there’s no way out.
~~~~~
I’ve been excited for this one ever since Navah Wolfe first started talking about it, describing it as “lesbian women of color space pirates vs a murderous AI” on Twitter. I’ve been waiting since then with bated breath to get my hands on Stearns’ debut, and Barbary Station is finally here!

Barbary Station is primarily a fun novel about swashbuckling pirates, even with the darker concerns at its heart. The whole book is focused on a rather simple premise, of a kind perhaps familiar to players of Portal: the need to use intelligence and brute force in combination to escape a murderous situation in which the clock is ticking down to inevitable death. Stearns plays with the concept a little by expanding the group who need rescuing – not just the protagonist, or her and her lover, but a whole merc group cum pirate crew and a group of refugees trapped on the space station too.

The writing is, on the whole, the breeziness that this kind of plot needs; Barbary Station is tense and dramatic, but those things meant to raise the stakes don’t land with quite the emotional force Stearns needed. While no one is safe, and child death is used on multiple occasions as an emblem of ruthlessness on the part of those opposing our protagonists, these deaths are little felt, in part because we don’t tend to know the characters well; even to the rest of the cast, they feel passing, as the impacts wear off too quickly. The action scenes are where Stearns is at her best; fast-paced and slightly chaotic, they don’t feel choreographed, and that makes those parts of Barbary Station the best by a distance.

Stearns’ other strength is the relationship between three of her characters, the two viewpoint protagonists and one secondary; that is, Iridian, Adda, and Adda’s brother Pel. Barbary Station is told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of Adda and Iridian, and their love is touching and beautifully written; the way each is deeply concerned with the safety of others and knows their own, and each other’s, strengths is movingly told. They are the central star around which the other orbits, and Stearns gets that emotional payload across without it feeling forced or meaningless. Barbary Station‘s only other emotional weight is that between Adda and Iridian, as newcomers to the station, and Pel, Adda’s brother but who brought them to the station with promises of wealth; it’s a well written developing relationship that really does help to ground everything.

Unfortunately, the relationships within the rest of the crew, and between crew and Adda and Iridian, are much less solid. Barbary Station tends towards light characterisation, and lightly worn emotion; things that should have extremely heavy emotional impact might have that briefly, but then it rapidly wears off – just as Stearns has physical impacts surprisingly rapidly vanish from the characters. This gives a sense of superficiality to the book; nothing particularly matters to the characters for long, and where Stearns is trying to invest us in them, that really falls down.

A final problem for Barbary Station is how contrived it becomes as the action ramps up to the climax. Stearns introduces not only multiple additional vectors of problems, but also a whole new faction, to the station as she brings things to their head; the split in reader attention is frustrating and the attempt to heighten all the stakes at once actually just serves to undercut all the stakes before, as if Stearns hadn’t felt like there was any danger until this moment so had to add more. Barbary Station comes to a head less with a bang than a bit of a chaotic whimper, sadly.

In the end, I’m judging Barbary Station by the wrong standards, though. Stearns doesn’t appear to be writing high literature; she’s writing a fun, swashbuckling novel, with action and (well-written lesbians). On that front, at least, she unequivocally succeeds; just don’t look too deep.

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

unkindnessofghosts-509x800
Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remains of her world.

Aster lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer, Aster learns there may be a way to improve her lot—if she’s willing to sow the seeds of civil war.
~~~~~
When a book comes with a blurb from a thriller-writing sensation like Lee Child, and a stellar review from the wonderful Amal El-Mohtar, that’s already a fascinating pitch to me. When the author is themselves an agender person, and writing about queer characters? Well, finally, An Unkindness of Ghosts came out, and I got a copy…

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a generation ship novel, and in many ways, partakes of the standard tropes of that subgenre of science fiction novel; including a dystopian social structure evolved over the generations, myths of a long-ago Earth, and something going wrong that means the journey is, apparently, to those on the ship, now endless. Solomon’s innovations are on the more specific, than the abstract, level; what they do with these tropes is where their genius comes in, how they execute this standard model.

The key influence in the worldbuilding of An Unkindness of Ghosts is plantation slavery as practiced in the United States of America. Solomon has taken that social model and transposed it, almost without alteration, to a spaceship, the HSS Matilda. The way the whole social life of the ship works is based on slavery and racism, and Solomon doesn’t shy away from the brutality of plantation slavery; the opulence of the white rich is contrasted sharply with the abject poverty and abuse of the black slave-classes.

Regular, gendered violence is part of An Unkindness of Ghosts, something Solomon’s characters recognise as both appalling and inevitable (Aster, our protagonist, takes daily precautions to reduce the physical harm rape would do; but the characters are scarred and hurt by their experiences). Similarly, racist language and thought permeates An Unkindness of Ghosts, the way it permeates a good novel about the 19th century Southern United States of America: presented and represented as part of life, as something to be struggled with, but also absolutely unacceptable and wrong.

One of the joys of the novel is how queer Solomon has made it. Aster, our main viewpoint character in An Unkindness of Ghosts, is intersex and bisexual; it’s not one of the defining features of her character. More key to her character is that she is what we would refer to as autistic, and that is portrayed beautifully and sensitively by Solomon; they don’t go in for stereotypes, like making Aster unfeeling or unempathetic, but think about what lies under behaviours such as an apparent lack of sense of humour or excessive literalism. Aint Melusine, who brought Aster up, is asexual and aromantic; the chapter from her viewpoint is absolutely beautiful, and while centring her asexuality also expands on things like her feelings about being a nanny for the white upper classes of the ship. Theo, the Surgeon, is trans and possibly homosexual; he doesn’t seem wholly clear himself about his gender, but clearly he feels uncomfortable with the cis male role he is socially forced in to as part of the ship’s heirarchy. And so on; there are various queer characters in the novel, and Solomon portrays them honestly and humanly, as imperfect and not defined by their queerness.

An Unkindness of Ghosts faces them with a homophobic, queerphobic society, driven by a twisted set of religious beliefs very recognisable as evangelical Christianity with a pinch more Calvinism thrown in for good measure. Solomon, in their unflinching look at prejudice, doesn’t have much interest in showing the caring face the prejudiced man shows to those he believes his equal; instead, they are solely focused on the impacts of prejudice on those who suffer it, and the novel is stronger for that focus. As a result, the white characters tend to be less fully fleshed out than the black ones, but also rather more infrequent and minor, too; and it’s a refreshing change to not be asked to empathise with the enforcers of an appalling social order.

An Unkindness of Ghosts isn’t solely an exploration of the brutality of plantation life, of racism, of queerphobia; it’s also a novel about curiosity and discovery. Aster’s story is about learning, and about finding out what underlies much of the ship; each discovery leads her further into future discoveries, and Solomon makes them all link beautifully. Each discovery also brings her further into conflict with the heirarchy of the ship, and Solomon doesn’t flinch from inflicting tragedy on both Aster and the reader as a result; the raising stakes are deftly done, and darkly honest. This gives the climax of the novel incredible power; it is a perfect culmination for both the plot of the novel and its emotional stakes, while being very open for the reader to imagine what comes next.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is one of those novels that just changes what the reader thinks of as possible with the genre it partakes of, by proving just how much excellence is possible; it’s also a brutal, powerful, gut-wrenching read. This is Rivers Solomon’s debut, so where they go next, and how they find space to level up, is anyone’s guess…!

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
America, 1920s. A plague is spreading, and it’s spreading fast, from New Orleans to Chicago to New York.

It’s an epidemic of freedom, joy and self-expression, being spread by Black artists, that makes anyone who catches it desperate to dance, sing, laugh and jive. It’s the outbreak of Jazz, Ragtime and Blues onto the world scene; the spirit of Blackness overtaking America and the world. And it’s threatening to dismantle the whole social order.

Working to root out the plague by any means possible – even murder – are the members of The Wallflower Order, an international conspiracy dedicated to puritanism and control. But, deep in the heart of Harlem, private eye and Vodun priest Papa LaBas is determined to defend his flourishing ancient culture against their insidious plans. And so, he finds himself locked in a race against the Order to find an ancient Egyptian text which might just be the key to keeping the virus of freedom alive.
~~~~~
I first heard of Mumbo Jumbo through Tor.com, specifically this essay in Nisi Shawl’s fantastic History of Black Science Fiction series. Given Shawl’s recommendation, I picked it up – from the general fiction, not SFF, section – as soon as I saw the new Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Mumbo Jumbo is an odd book; there is a single narrative strain to it, a single plot, but the way Reed tells his story, it feels rather more disjointed, more confused, less cohesive as a single thing. This is clearly an intentional choice, and lends a fascinating kind of puzzle quality to the book; working out how different things, different characters, and different aspects of the novel fit together with each other becomes a harder task, but also a more rewarding one, than in a more traditional Western narrative. Reed rejects these models to combine different forms into a single work, creating a modernist experimental novel.

That novel follows the phenomenon of Jes Grew, a kind of socio-spiritual movement which combines dance, religion, and free decolonised thought; Mumbo Jumbo can be read as (relatively) mimetic if the reader chooses, though Reed’s inclusion of supernatural elements, and a consciousness and intention behind Jes Grew, suggests such a reading would lose something key. The different things Reed draws into the story of Jes Grew include Western global colonialism, Black cultural development and radical Black thought in 1920s America, an internationalist tendency, a resistance to Western patronisation of other cultures, and more.

One of the ways Reed takes on imperialism in Mumbo Jumbo is through the Mu’tafikah, an internationalist and multiracial group dedicated to taking non-Western artifacts from Western museums and returning them to the cultures from which they were plundered. Reed is unabashedly on the side of these liberators, and the novel has, in its occasional moments of focus on them, an absolutely brilliant heist quality and sense of lightness. The characters of the Mu’tafikah are some of the most oddball of the novel, and absolutely wonderfully characterised, with their own prejudices but working together through them against a common enemy.

The other, more central plot of the novel follows the attempts of the Wallflower Order to suppress Jes Grew. Mumbo Jumbo posits an ideological system called Atonism that is upheld across the West, and seems to have its roots in Judaism; there is a somewhat antisemitic undercurrent in the way that Judaism is treated as a (part of) a shadowy force that has constantly attempted to suppress Black thought and art down history. The different ways the Atonists try to control power, and the different Atonist organisations – including the Knights Templar, and the Masons, naturally – are unsurprising and typical of this kind of conspiracy, but the way Reed writes them as barely competent and always on the edge of exposure and total failure is refreshing. Similarly, so is the opposition to the conspiracy; Reed gives us different individuals working at cross-purposes to the same ends of Black liberation, and Mumbo Jumbo draws both comic and tragic power from the factionalism of the resistance to White supremacy and the Wallflower Order.

The actual characters of Mumbo Jumbo are, given how intellectual the underpinnings of the novel are, actually fully fleshed out and interesting characters, far more than just authorial constructs. Reed gives us a broad cast, including Black gangsters and hustlers, White newsmen and bigots, a VouDou priest who also has a sideline in private detection, a Nation of Islam forerunner, and more. They’ve all got pasts, and perspectives on the Jes Grew phenomenon and the state of America; they’ve all got different interests outside the focus of the novel which they attend to from time to time, taking time away from the plot only to appear again, or even being followed while doing something of little immediate bearing. Mumbo Jumbo‘s pages are peopled by characters who are not only fully fleshed out but also familiar; not as tropes, but as people one might know, might have encountered in life, and Reed makes them all feel like old friends.

Mumbo Jumbo is a bit of a jumble of a novel, but it’s also a work of genius; a modernist masterpiece, a patchwork of different elements that arguably ought not to work together, but that Reed brings together with a confidence and style that makes it look almost easy. This is a strange, mind-bending read, like little else I’ve read.

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

9781408891025
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
~~~~~
Jesmyn Ward is a previous winner of the National Book Award, a recipient this year of a MacArthur genius grant, drawing parallels with fellow NBA winner and MacArthur grant awardee Ta-Nehisi Coates; whereas Coates’ work on America is largely in the medium of nonfiction, Ward’s meditations on the country are through the medium of fiction.

Ward’s latest, Sing, Unburied, Sing, takes the American roadtrip, and twists it ever so slightly. Not only is this a roadtrip of a mixed-race family to meet their father on his release from the state penitentiary, there are also ghosts and supernatural forces mixed up in things, as well as drugs and intergenerational familial relations and resentments. Ward doesn’t resist complexity here; the whole book is centred on the tangled morality and reality created by the white supremacist, patriarchal state. Sing, Unburied, Sing doesn’t provide a simple moral solution, or any solutions at all, to the various problems which lie at its heart. Ward doesn’t seem interested in that so much as in using her art to lay out the problems, letting others look for solutions.

Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t a political manifesto of a novel, though. Ward has a lot of heart in here; the characters are absolutely brilliant. Leonie’s tangled relationship with her children, with her boyfriend, with her parents, with the parents of her boyfriend, and with her past, make her a complex and difficult character. The tensions she feels are beautifully conveyed, even when the reader doesn’t wholly empathise with her reactions. Similarly, Jojo’s maturation coinciding with his resistance to Leonie’s attempts to be a mother are beautifully conveyed; Ward somehow manages to get inside the psychology of a teenage boy fantastically, and really brings him to life, making his strands of Sing, Unburied, Sing incredibly powerful. The contrast between the way the two characters see the same events, especially at key emotional moments, is absolutely brilliant, and the alternating viewpoints really bring that out.

The rest of the cast are a little thin; this is especially true of Misty and Michael, Leonie’s friend and her boyfriend, but also of Mam and Pop, Leonie’s parents with whom she and her children live. Sing, Unburied, Sing gets into their heads a bit, especially in the case of Pop, whose past in the same pentitentiary Michael is being released from forms a key lynchpin of the novel, but not enough to really make them characters. Ward does this even more so with Michaela, or Kayla, Leonie’s daughter; while a toddler has limited interiority, the level displayed by Michaela seems to shift repeatedly across the course of the novel.

So far, this review has not touched on the plot. Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t a plot-driven novel; in some ways, Ward has written a kind of partial biography of these characters, and as such, there is less a plot than a series of connected events that form a life. These moments are powerfully written and joined by some beautiful, elegaic writing; both the darkness and light of family are exposed, and some of the absurdities of road trips, as well as their dangers, are made clear by Ward. This is at times a very visceral novel, both emotionally and physically, and it is in these moments that it really grips the reader.

There are two mysteries threaded through Sing, Unburied, Sing; one, which has an obvious conclusion to the reader far before it is revealed to the characters, is entangled with Pop’s incarceration at Larchman, and his attempts to protect a fellow inmate, Ritchie. The other is the murder of Given, Leonie’s older brother, by Michael’s cousin; this gives rise to a complex relationship between Michael and Leonie, as well as Leonie’s family. Both are founded on American white supremacy, and Ward doesn’t shy away from the manifestations of that in personal interactions or the state itself; the long shadow of slavery and Jim Crow are never far from sight in the novel.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward has given us an artistic reaction to American white supremacy; and it is a beautiful, powerful, and intelligent, damning reaction. I highly recommend it, and afterwards, her Guardian essay about raising a black son in America. Vital reading.

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.