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Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders

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Revealed•The terrible truth about why humans were created – and why we’ll never discover aliens. •A tale of three wishes, after the end of the world. •A family reunion in which some of the attendees aren’t human any more – but they’re still family. •TFW you try to solve a problem with time travel, and now you have two problems. •The love affair between the man who can see the one true foreordained future and the woman who can see all the possible futures. •And a coda to Anders’ bestselling All the Birds in the Sky, answering the burning question of what happened to Patricia’s cat.
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Charlie Jane Anders has been building her genre bona fides for some time; beyond her role as cofounding editor of io9 with her wife Annalee Newitz, she’s been nominated for the Nebulas, Sturgeons, and Hugos multiple times, winning a Hugo in 2012 for the titular story of this, her first short fiction collection.

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others is an interesting collection; while seemingly disparate at first glance, comprising a mixture of science fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, and urban fantasy, stories, there are some themes which emerge from the six stories in the collection. The biggest of those is Anders’ interest in romance and love; an oft overlooked idea in genre fiction, love of various kinds is either central to or plays a major role in every story in this set.

“The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model” is an odd choice to open the collection with, as the least strong story collected. While amusing, and while the characterisation works very well, the aliens are far too human as characters, despite their apparent physical differences. They’re rescued somewhat by the way Anders threads a tense romance between them through the story, and the execution of their relationship. The plot itself feels like a joke extended rather too far, and the ending of the story feels like it demonstrates that Anders didn’t quite know where to go with it.

“As Good As New” is a rather stronger tale; Anders takes a traditional fairy story, resets it in a postapocalyptic landscape, and subverts it. The banality of much of the story, in contrast to its actual events and weightiness, is brilliantly balanced, and adds a lot of humour to what could otherwise have become more a philosophical problem than a piece of fiction. The role of fictional drama of various kinds within the story itself is also rather masterful, and really lets Anders play with narrative.

“Intestate” is another odd story that could almost only have come from Anders. In it, she plays between mimetic fiction and speculative; the open-endedness of the story is not just about the events afterwards, but about the reality of the shared ideas the characters have within it. The combination of themes of posthumanism and technological personal upgrades with family strains and tensions is handled well, and the balance between the two, with each reinforcing the other, works fantastically. It could have seen the characters a little better fleshed out, but overall, it is effective.

“The Cartography of Sudden Death” is an odd time travel story. The drive that pulls Ythna through the story is powerful, but often eclipsed by simple events, and Jemima’s motivation and characterisation is basically completely blank. The action is fast-paced and well written, really punchy stuff, and it’s an interesting take on the inevitable rise and fall of empire and society, but the flat characterisations and lack of motivation of the primary actors makes it feel a little hollow.

“Six Months, Three Days” is the longest story in the collection, and one of the quietest; it is about a relationship between two clairvoyants, whose clairvoyance work in different ways. There aren’t world-shattering events involved, and the stakes are almost entirely personal; Anders keeps the story on a very human level, and the friction between the two main characters is far more powerful as a result. It’s a little solipsistic, and the engagement with free will versus clairvoyance can feel a little light and frivolous, but really, this is a beautiful story about love, and about male arrogance.

“Clover” closes the story with another small, quiet, domestic romance. Anders’ strength of writing, using the supernatural to simply exaggerate the mimetic, is on full display in this story; the ups and downs of a relationship, the strains and difficulties of romance, are emphasised but not created by the minor magical elements of the story. It’s a beautiful piece, and the way Anders writes both the cats and the humans involved in the tale is incredibly well done, although one suspects cats aren’t quite this human. It’s worth noting that although this ties into All the Birds in the Sky, and has greater poignancy if you’ve read that novel, it stands perfectly well on its own and retains all its own beauty.

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others isn’t a perfect collection, but its strongest stories are absolutely brilliant, and Anders’ writing of romance is truly a wonderful thing to read. More, please!

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The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

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For as long as Molly Southbourne can remember, she’s been watching herself die. Whenever she bleeds, another molly is born, identical to her in every way and intent on her destruction.

Molly knows every way to kill herself, but she also knows that as long as she survives she’ll be hunted. No matter how well she follows the rules, eventually the mollys will find her. Can Molly find a way to stop the tide of blood, or will she meet her end at the hand of a girl who looks just like her?
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Tade Thompson’s previous novels have been an African noir, Making Wolf, and an African first-contact novel, Rosewater. This novella marks a double-departure, into yet another new genre, and also into a new setting: America.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne opens rather like it’s going to be a Saw-alike; a nameless character with no memory wakes up, bound, and in captivity. She is tattooed with a number and cared for, albeit somewhat haphazardly, by a captor. Then, the talking begins; only it’s not the captive expected to talk, but to listen, as Thompson turns the expectations his first chapter sets up on their head. The majority of The Murders of Molly Southbourne is recounted in one long piece of narration to the captive woman, by Molly Southbourne herself; it’s a device that works very well, because we are never quite allowed to forget the implications and set up at the start of the novella.

The plot is minimalistic and open-ended; The Murders of Molly Southbourne is really an exploration of a concept, rather than a plot-driven story. The episodes recounted by our narrator-within-a-story tell her life from her earliest memory to, practically, the present moment; Thompson immerses himself in the aging and maturing voice throughout the book, and the narration ages with its narrator, becomes more sophisticated, and more self-aware. The Murders of Molly Southbourne sees Molly grow from a child trained by her parents, both of whom seem to have exciting, concealed backstories, to kill; because when she bleeds, new iterations of her appear, and try to kill her. The plot sees her learn how to manage this, including when she starts menstruating – Thompson does not avoid the difficulty in having a blood-based problem for a woman, instead dealing with it in a very matter of fact way – before investigating the situation that gave rise to it.

Fundamentally, there are only four characters in the whole novella; Molly herself, her two parents, and a later love interest and academic helper. The Murders of Molly Southbourne feels like it has a larger cast because each of these characters so clearly has their own story; Molly’s mother’s past is unclear and clearly involved espionage of some sort, her father’s past is if anything even more mysterious, and they have a life that does not wholly revolve around Molly. It is the moments of domesticity that constrast the ultraviolence that really make this novella work: the characters are more than just machines for hurting others, they’re real people who also have to hurt others, and who suffer for it. Thompson’s sympathetic rendition of the psychological consequences of this are powerful and fascinating, and really leap off the page.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne is essentially a psychological horror, and the close focus on Molly’s psyche accomplishes that very effectively; there are moments when it is lifted, and those tend to have a little less impact. As a whole, the narration is very dispassionate, but in a very careful way; it isn’t emotionless, but it feels like there is a lot of suppressed and relayed emotion, as if Molly, in telling her story to her captive, is clamping down on her own reactions ot it. This is less true of the action sequences; those are fast-paced and powerful, Thompson writing with incredible immediacy about the adrenalised nature of them.

All in all, The Murders of Molly Southbourne is a dark, thrilling, moving novella, and I’m excited to see where Tade Thompson takes this next… as well as being curious about how it could be adapted for film.

Disclaimer: Tade Thompson is a friend. This review was based on an a final copy sent, at the author’s request, by the publisher, Tor.com.

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Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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Near-future Britain is not just a nation under surveillance but one built on it: a radical experiment in personal transparency and ambient direct democracy. Every action is seen, every word is recorded.

Diana Hunter is a refusenik, a has-been cult novelist who lives in a house with its own Faraday cage: no electronic signals can enter or leave. She runs a lending library and conducts business by barter. She is off the grid in a society where the grid is everything. Denounced, arrested, and interrogated by a machine that reads your life history from your brain, she dies in custody.

Mielikki Neith is the investigator charged with discovering how this tragedy occurred. Neith is Hunter’s opposite. She is a woman in her prime, a stalwart advocate of the System. It is the most democratic of governments, and Neith will protect it with her life.

When Neith opens the record of the interrogation, she finds not Hunter’s mind but four others, none of which can possibly be there: the banker Constantine Kyriakos, pursued by a ghostly shark that eats corporations; the alchemist Athenais Karthagonensis, jilted lover of St Augustine of Hippo and mother to his dead son, kidnapped and required to perform a miracle; Berihun Bekele, artist and grandfather, who must escape an arson fire by walking through walls – if only he can remember how; and Gnomon, a sociopathic human intelligence from a distant future, falling backwards in time to conduct four assassinations.

Aided – or perhaps opposed – by the pale and paradoxical Regno Lönnrot, Neith must work her way through the puzzles of her case and find the meaning of these impossible lives. Hunter has left her a message, but is it one she should heed, or a lie to lead her into catastrophe? And as the stories combine and the secrets and encryptions of Gnomon are revealed, the question becomes the most fundamental of all: who will live, and who will die?
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Nick Harkaway has always straddled the line between literary fiction and science fiction, whether it be in his post-apocalyptic The Gone-Away World or the superhero-meets-colonialism of Tigerman. The question this begs for each new work is, which side of the line does it favour…?

Gnomon is a complex book, to the point of being difficult to review; the question of where to begin so as not to get bogged down in one aspect and neglect others is a difficult one, because it is so dense. Harkaway’s worldbuilding is incredible; he’s not only written a near-future London whose transport infrastructure feels intensely real, but whose political infrastructure also feels all too plausible. Gnomon is set in a Britain that has embraced a system that combines direct democracy with a panopticon surveillance society, overseen by the computer algorithm known as the System; in everyday life, that manifests as the System being a personal assistant like a Siri that can predict your wants and almost read your mind… and that perhaps functions at times like a nudge unit. The impact of this is part of the conflict at the heart of the novel; what it means for individual privacy and freedom isn’t given a simple answer. If a crime is committed, it is investigated by the humans who make up the Witness, combining human insight with the non-intelligent technology of the System; and people’s minds can be mapped and read to establish innocence or guilt – or conspiracy.

Nominally, Gnomon follows the investigation of Mielikki Neith, inspector of the Witness, into a mind-mapping operation on Diana Hunter which went wrong and led to her death… and to the information the mapping was meant to discover. Inevitably, for something which combines thriller with science fiction, this leads Mielikki to a greater conspiracy; but it is also how Harkaway brings in a number of secondary narratives, shells Diana used to hide herself from the brain mapping by giving it false personas and histories to read. Each of these narratives within the central narrative of Mielikki’s investigation is as brilliantly written and complex, and fully peopled, as the main narrative itself; Gnomon essentially has five different narratives, four of them shell games around the fifth central one, each of which has clues to what is going on in the others and what they mean. The way Harkaway weaves these different narratives together, and draws different points and keys out of them, and links them in to each other symbolically and literally, is beautifully done, albeit weaving the kind of web across nearly 700 pages that it can be hard for the reader to keep track of.

One of the things Harkaway uses to help with this is excellent characterisation. Gnomon is one of the most interestingly peopled novels I’ve read in a long time, and with one of the most unusual approach to personhood; not only does the text demand the reader interrogate the idea of the individual, but the text itself does. The cast includes ancient alchemists from the time of Augustine (Athenais, fictionalised mistress of the real Augustine before his conversion and mother of his son) to present-day Greek bankers playing the markets and playing gods (Constantine Kyriarkos, whose name alone is suggestive), an immigrant Ethiopian exile and extraordinary artist (Berihun Bekele, who Harkaway uses to talk about the history of colonialism and interrogate online racism, right up to a direct albeit not-by-name engagement with the hate campaign that is GamerGate), and a multiply-embodied far-future post-human engaged in a war with entropy (Gnomon’s sections are by far the strangest). Most of these characters are as powerfully fleshed out as those in the real world of the novel, with their own lives and relationships; Gnomon goes in deep on the granularity of individuality. The one character Harkaway falls down on is Gnomon themself; the multi-bodied post-human being seems rather two-dimensional, and their thoughts rather too human, while also being at the same time a little too simplistic and, compared to the other narratives of the novel, essentially uninteresting.

The strongest point of Gnomon is perhaps its unexpected ending; Harkaway goes to his most literary at the close of the novel, with an ending that is simultaneously cliche and utterly new, and wholly unexpected. Each character’s narrative is beautifully and powerfully resolved, although not necessarily closed off; people don’t necessarily get what they deserve. Hints and clues which have been dropped throughout the narrative suddenly become obvious in hindsight, and the whole shape of Gnomon is shifted into a new format.

If there’s one drawback, it’s that it takes nearly 700 pages to get there; at times, Gnomon feels like it is dragging, drawn out for the sake of it. Harkaway has certain moments and character motifs that repeat endlessly, as if to drive the point home; over the course of the full novel, these can become wearing, and the lack of obvious links between the narratives and Mielikki’s actual investigation, and the things going on in the background, can all become a little frustratingly obscure as Harkaway layers up the puzzle pieces that will eventually all fall into place together to create the final picture.

In the end, though, Gnomon is definitely worth it; another monumental, brilliant, brain-bending piece of literary science fiction from Nick Harkaway.

Disclaimer: This review was based on a final copy requested from and provided by the publisher, William Heinemann, for review.

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Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

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When anything can be owned, how can we be free

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?
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Autonomous is one of those books which seems to be everywhere on social media, getting buzz and hype from everyone; Annalee Newitz herself was the founding editor of io9, so knows her geek culture, and is now tech-culture editor at Ars Technica, so she knows her science geek culture at that. But does she know about writing a novel…?

Before we go any further, Autonomous deserves praise for the style in which Newitz wrote it. This is cyberpunk thriller written for the 21st century; it’s driving, pacey, but not affectless or baroque, with emotionality bleeding through the text. The novel contains serial worldbuilding sections, but none too lengthy, and they all feel well integrated into the text; at times a little heavy-handed and a little too detailed, but on the whole, supporting the plot rather than being supported by it. Autonomous is written in close-third person, from a number of different perspectives, and each one is distinct and different, with different motivators; there is a slightly flat Americanness to all of them, but they are least easily distinguished.

Having said that, Autonomous is far from perfect. The plot is rather conventional thriller territory, right down to the ending, which one can see from rather far away; the race between heavy-handed state investigators and plucky infopirates to release information damaging to government-affiliated megacorporations isn’t exactly innovative. Nor, for that matter, are the subplots; Newitz writes with sympathy about the bot Paladin gaining a sense of self and others, but it’s again, not breaking new ground, and nor do the rather heavy-handed messages about out-of-control capitalism.

The characters are similarly drawn from previous works; Autonomous trades on pre-existing archetypes quite solidly, from the repressed Eastern European former Catholic Eliasz, now an agent of the IPC, to the pirate Jack with her heart of gold and desire to help other people. These characters are undoubtedly well drawn and written in a sympathetic way, but they’re nothing new to the reader; Newitz has less revitalised an old formula than simply regurgitated it.

This falls flattest around the questions raised by the novel’s title, Autonomous. It’s the characters whose actions are most obviously limited by questions of autonomy who are simultaneously the most new, and the least so. Paladin, for instance, the military spec robot, reads like virtually every other sentience coming into themselves; that she chooses to use a feminine pronoun rather than a neutral one, despite actively thinking about the fact robots don’t really have gender, is rather less interesting or exciting than Newitz seems to think. Threezed is at least a little more interesting, with his bitterness at the system and actions almost programmed; Autonomous gives, towards the end of the book, his perspective on events that transpired with Jack early in the book, and the contrast is quite fascinating, if also very incongruous.

Where the book falls down hardest, though, is its treatment of violence. Autonomous treats its first instances of violence very heavily and seriously; they are meaningful and important, and feel weighty, having continuing impacts on both plot and characters as the novel goes on. However, future violent outbursts seem far less impactful; there are multiple instances when characters torture others for information, and Newitz treats this incredibly lightly, with no seeming impact on those doing the torture, no second thoughts, or alternative paths seen as options. In the hands of a writer more prepared to engage with what that might imply, this could have been interesting; as it was, it just frustrated.

In sum, while Autonomous is intensely readable, and while the worldbuilding is detailed and fascinating, the actual novel, as a plot and set of characters, is distinctly lacking.

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The Memoirist by Neil Williamson

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In a future dominated by omnipresent surveillance, why are so many powerful people determined to wipe a poignant gig by a faded rock star from the annals of history? When Rhian is hired to write the memoirs of Elodie Eagles, former singer with the politically charged, electro-rock band, The HitMEBritneys, she has no idea of the dangerous path she is treading…
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Britain is one of, if not the, the most heavily surveilled place in the world; figures from 2013 suggested there was a CCTV camera for every fifteen people in the country. Add to that the way we share information about ourselves on social media and are both rewarded for it and used by marketing departments because of it, and a novella about the Panopticon society becomes incredibly timely…

The Memoirist is a near-future science fiction novel set in a society where surveillance of all, by all, at virtually all times (except where specific opt-outs have been applied) is the rule. Williamson doesn’t go into the way this society came about, instead handwaving at terrorism, safety concerns, and social media universalisation as having led to this point; he’s not particularly interested in how we get to the society he’s putting under the microscope, instead wanting to talk about how it functions when we get there. It’s an interesting thought experiment and extension of where society is now; universal surveillance and social media ranking as determining friendships and job prospects, given that people have lost jobs over social media posts, aren’t outlandish prospects, and The Memoirist isn’t optimistic about where that might go given human nature and prurience.

The reaction against this society drives much of the plot of The Memoirist; indeed, what starts as a minor theme, over the course of the novella, becomes the dominant melody. Williamson is interested in different factions’ takes on the society this creates, especially the uneven distribution of information – inevitably, government and government officials still have secrets; the richer one is, the more privacy one can afford. The Memoirist sees different people approaching how to deal with that reality in very different ways; it’s a thoughtful and intelligent meditation, and doesn’t come to any easy answers on the topic, insteead suggesting a multiplicity of futures.

That only really defines one strand of the plot, in which Rhian is drawn into a factional fight between different groups of people who have different ideals of how the pseudo-panopticon society they live in should develop. The other strand is a historical attempt to unearth the last concert by Elodie Eagles, to curate her memoir from the information about her out there; this is the strand that names The Memoirist. It’s an interesting one, and the way Williamson engages with the mutability of memory, and the preciousness and personal nature of individual recollection of even group experiences and of the ephemerality of individual memory is brilliant. However, it’s not given very much weight when compared to the other strand, and the way Williamson ties it into the broader societal topics of the novella seem overdone and unnecessary; rather than being neat, they make The Memoirist feel a little overcontrived.

The emotional core of The Memoirist is Rhian and her relationships, and that’s where Williamson really shines. Rhian is a brilliant character, flawed and constantly curating her online presence and persona, always aware of the surveillance she’s under; her reactions feel intensely familiar to anyone who has lived under the scrutiny of online peers. Her relationships are deeply human – the strained and complicated relationship with her mother, whose reaction to the society they live in is so different; her off-the-grid sometime-lover and friend Pawel, whose connections to extralegal conspiracies drive so much of the plot; and the way she constantly sands down her spikier edges when talking to people professionally.

In the end, The Memoirist might be somewhat flawed, but it’s a fascinating novella; I want to spend more time in Rhian’s spiky company, although I wouldn’t want to live in the society she does…

Disclaimer: Neil Williamson is a personal friend and a regular host of events at my place of work.

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Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, trans. Karin Tidbeck

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Vanja, an information assistant, is sent from her home city of Essre to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka with an assignment to collect intelligence for the government. Immediately she feels that something strange is going on: people act oddly in Amatka, and citizens are monitored for signs of subversion.

Intending to stay just a short while, Vanja falls in love with her housemate, Nina, and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony, and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.

In Karin Tidbeck’s world, everyone is suspect, no one is safe, and nothing—not even language, nor the very fabric of reality—can be taken for granted. Amatka is a beguiling and wholly original novel about freedom, love, and artistic creation by a captivating new voice.
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Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention through Cheeky Frawg’s publication of Jagganath a few years back; it feels like even then we were all waiting for a novel by this multitalented multilinguist who translates her own fiction from Swedish into English, including this novel. So perhaps it is no surprise that Amatka is such a linguistically involved novel…

Amatka is on the surface of it a novel in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin mixed with a good dash of George Orwell; The Dispossessed meets 1984. At the start, it seems like a fictionalised version of the Soviet Union with a dash of the Weird, with its intrusive government presence, communist and communal system, dismal dreariness, spartan tendencies, and general bureaucratic and depersonalising approach. Tidbeck sets us up to expect one kind of novel, very much in the mode of 1984, where love as resistance leads to a more generalised resistance against an unjust authority; but Amatka goes in a different direction, with its weirder elements.

Those weirder elements are also present almost from the very start, with the labelling of everything; it’s implied that in the world of Amatka, naming things helps them or forces them to keep their form. It’s an interesting concept on the face of it, and that’s before Tidbeck goes further with the idea, playing with it and pushing it to weird and strange places. Tidbeck uses Amatka to play with, and literalise, the ideas of form and function as defined by language, and reality being what we describe it as; there are fantastic unspoken parts of the book about the way poetry versus prose describe things, and fiction versus fact, that are really interesting and could have been almost a whole novel in themselves.

Amatka is an entry in a long discussion in fiction about dystopia and the way strictures are enforced on society. Tidbeck builds her Soviet-reminiscent setting before explaining at all why it is necessary or how it came about; we see everything from the perspective of Vanja, and her status in society, which influences our reactions to everything, for reasons which only become clear as the book continues. Amatka plays with the necessity of the strictures of oppression, requiring the reader to ask whether freedom is worth the price, in this context, of that freedom, or whether order is worth the cost of order; there aren’t easy answers here.

The characters of Amatka are the weak link here. While Vanja’s outsider status and feeling of being a universal outsider is well written, and her doubts and anguish at the oppression of the communes well conveyed, the rest of the cast have a tendency to feel a bit flat, like ciphers or game-pieces moved into place for the sake of the plot and the sake of Vanja rather than people in their own right. Nina comes closest to breaking this pattern, and Tidbeck conveys her various conflicts between ideology and personal relationships very well, although at times, especially when they’re most strongly opposed, it can feel a little forced.

In the end, despite the weakness of characterisation, Amatka is an absolute masterpiece of a novel, and Tidbeck’s writing and ideas spark off the page and engage the reader wholly. An intellectual, literary piece of brilliance.

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Transcendent ed. K. M. Szpara

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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
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K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.

It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.

Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.

A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.

One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.

That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.

The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.

Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.

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