Book Review: Octavia’s Brood

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

One of the many uses of science fiction is to talk about current issues in a speculative setting.  One can posit a world in which current trends have become exaggerated to dystopian levels, or where a solution has been found to a current problem and what that would result in, or imagine how a change in the past would affect an issue…or even just go the allegory route by, say, having anti-Martian prejudice stand in for anti-immigrant prejudice of the current day.

Octavia's Shadow

This anthology is dedicated to science fiction stories on the theme of social justice issues.  It’s dedicated to the memory of Octavia Butler (1947-2006) a Hugo-winning author of works that touched on such themes as racism, alienation and the environment.  There are twenty stories and two essays by a variety of experienced and first-time authors.

The first story is “Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi.  Two Vietnamese-American young people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse are about to liberate an internment camp for Asian and Middle Eastern-descended people.  It seems that in this future, the zombie infestation was declared a terrorist attack, and the most likely suspects were locked up in special facilities to maintain zombie-attracting pistons “for their own protection.”  It reads like the first chapter of a YA dystopia novel.

The last fictional story is “children who fly” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  It’s a future starring her daughter in a globally-warmed Oakland, trying to preserve what’s left of the community through group disassociation.  “Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs also uses heavy author insertion in foretelling a future where material goods are no longer important but personal growth is.

Several stories are clearly in the Afrofuturism mode, such as “Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros, about a time-traveling Ethiopian king.

The most stylistically interesting piece is “Sanford and Sun” by Dawolu Jahari Anderson, which is a script format tale about junk dealer Fred G. Sanford encountering cosmic funk musician and philosopher Sun Ra.  It’s a neat concept, but the “jokes” reminded me of just how much Redd Foxx’s comedic delivery skills carried the Sanford and Son show.  Without specifically imagining him in the role at all times, the lines fall flat.

Some of the stories feel like incomplete fragments.  “Aftermath” by LeVar Burton (about an African-American scientist developing a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, only to be kidnapped by people who want to skin her alive) and “Fire on the Mountain” by Terry Bisson (an alternate history where the Civil War went very differently indeed) are open about this as they are previews of longer books.  Others come off as essays more than stories.

Of the stories in this volume, the one I liked best was “The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips.  It takes place in an archipelago where people known as Memorials can access the memories of the Memorials who have come before them, back to the beginning of their line.  These Memorials have become an important part of the society as the rulers must consult them and their knowledge of history before each important decision.

A wealthy and ambitious politician has become an enemy of the Memorials for reasons including the fact that they remember his ideas turn out badly.  He manages to get enough of the government on his side to imprison the Memorials.

The protagonist organizes a hunger strike in an effort to bring the politician to the negotiating table (and also to remind the people that the Memorials have been locked up.)  She naturally wants herself and her colleagues to be freed, but also comes to the realization that the people of the Archipelago have leaned on the Memorials for long-term memory so much that they’ve lost the capacity to remember history for themselves.

The essays are “Star Wars and the American Imagination” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is about pretty much what you’d think, and “The Only Lasting Truth”  by Tananarive Due, which is about Octavia Butler herself, her work, and her legacy.

There’s also a foreword, introduction and outro discussing the themes and importance of the works included, and a set of author bios.

This collection is “important” more than “good”; the quality of submissions is uneven, but they are nevertheless interesting to read and contemplate, and I look forward to seeing the future work of many of these authors.  If you have an interest in social justice themes or Afrofuturism, please consider picking this book up.

 

Magazine Review: Galaxy Science Fiction July 1951

Magazine Review: Galaxy Science Fiction July 1951 edited by H.L. Gold

Galaxy lasted from 1950 to 1980 as a digest-sized science fiction magazine.  Originally published by an Italian firm trying to break into the American market, the magazine was noted for its emphasis on stories about social issues and its comparatively sedate covers.  (“Fourth of July on Titan” is by Willer.)  Editor H.L. Gold offered up to three times the usual pay per word, allowing him to get first crack at superior work by noted authors.

Galaxy Science Fiction July 1951

“Getting Personal” is the opening editorial by H.L. Gold himself; it proposes a uniform for writers so they can be easily spotted and honored/shunned.  This is in contrast to the potted bios of the authors appearing in the issue, which are widely varied.  Mildly amusing.

“Venus is a Man’s World” by William Tenn takes place after the mass die-off of male humans in the Third Atomic War convinced  women enough was enough already, and they voted themselves in charge.  The lack of a Fourth Atomic War seems to have shown the wisdom of this approach.

However, women on Earth still vastly outnumber men, and the remaining terrestrial males aren’t much to write home about.  Thus it is that young Ferdinand Sparling is hauled along with his adult sister Evelyn on a ship to Venus.  That frontier world is heavily tilted in the opposite direction, with lots of virile, untamed men and few women.  A great place to find a husband, right?

Ferdinand (who swiftly adopts the nickname “Ford”) is exploring the ship when he discovers a stowaway, Venusian rouster Alberta “Butt” Lee  Brown.  Butt had come to Earth to look for a wife, but fell foul of the law and had to escape.

The story ends about as you’d expect it to in the 1950s, with the wily men outfoxing the officious women.  The stereotypes are so thick that it may circle around to be funny again for some readers.

“Common Denominator” by John D. Macdonald (perhaps best known for his Travis McGee crime novels) is a chiller involving first contact with an alien species.  The Argonauts seem friendly and peaceful, and in a major twist, they actually are.  They’ve licked the problems of violent crime and war and have eight thousand years of peace and quiet to show for it.  One Earthman, chief of the Bureau of Racial Maturity (“wait, we have one of those?”), decides he should find out how they did that.  He does.  Warning for suicide.  My pick for the best story in the issue.

“Syndrome Johnny” by Charles Dye takes place after two successive epidemics of previously unknown diseases have ravaged humanity.  The good news is that the much reduced population has world peace.  The bad news is that the survivors have been genetically modified by the diseases.  Or is that bad news?  One government agent figures out that the mythical Syndrome Johnny (we’d say “Patient Zero”) is a real person, and conditions are right for a third epidemic that will wipe out human beings as we know them.  The fate of humanity is left up to one scientist who is also a father.

“Mars Child” by Cyril Judd (pen name of C.M. Kornbluth and Judith Merrill) is the second half of a serial.  Sun Lake is unusual among Mars colonies in that it’s not corporate-owned, but the collective property of its inhabitants.  (More libertarian than Communist.)  It’s financially struggling, but if they can keep things together just a few more years, Sun Lake will be self-sufficient and a viable alternative to living on the environmentally ruined Earth.

Bad news hits when a nearby pharmaceutical company owner claims that several kilograms of the highly addictive drug marcaine have gone missing from his factory.  The trail leads to Sun Lake, he claims.  Not only does Hugo Brenner have Mars’ top cop, Commissioner Bell, in his pocket, but he’s also the only supplier of Ox-En, a substance needed for all but the hardiest of humans to breathe on Mars.  Either Sun Lake turns over the marcaine (which as far as the colonists know they don’t have) within a week, or Brenner will ruin them by one of a number of technically legal methods.

Meanwhile, Tony Hellman, Sun Lake’s sole doctor, has many other problems on his plate.  Sunny, the first baby born in the colony, refuses to suckle, and isn’t keen on other feeding methods.  Sunny’s mother is dealing with severe post-partum depression, and hallucinating the presence of the mythical “Brownies”, supposed natives of Mars. A woman from a nearby mining operation dies of (among other things) a botched attempt to give herself an abortion.  Plus numerous other sick and injured people.  Oh, and Tony is beginning to notice how attractive his nurse is.

Into all this mess comes Graham, a top-notch journalist from Earth, who wants to report the true conditions on Mars.  His story could save Sun Lake–if he doesn’t decide to write a hit piece instead!

Naturally, it turns out that all the plot threads are more closely connected than anyone realized.  Part of the resolution comes from psychic powers out of left field, and part from some dubious genetics.  This novel was published in book form as Outpost Mars in 1952 and reprinted as Sin in Space in 1961.

“Galaxy’s Five Star Shelf” by Groff Conklin is their book review column.  Despite the name, not all the books are treated as stellar.  Mr. Conklin does recommend Eric Frank Russell’s Dreadful Sanctuary and Fred Hoyle’s The Nature of the Universe.  (With the caveat for the latter that Mr. Hoyle is a little too certain he’s got it right this time.)

“Pen Pal” by Milton Lesser concerns Matilda Penshaws, a woman who is determined to find a husband.  But she’s picky, and none of the local fellows will do.  (Which is why she’s still single on the far side of thirty.)  She sees a personal ad in the pen pal column from Haron Gorka, whose advertisement promises he’s something different from the usual stamp collectors and radio hams that put out such ads.

Matilda decides to steal a march on other prospects and drives to the next state to meet him in person.  Except that no one in that town seems to have ever heard of Mr. Gorka.  Except, as it turns out, the town librarian, who knows him well and is not impressed.  Directions in hand, Matilda finally meets Haron, to discover he is both less and more than the advertisement promised.  The ending is rather telegraphed, and there’s some tired “battle of the sexes” stuff.

The issue ends with Fritz Leiber’s “Appointment in Tomorrow.”  It is the end of the Twentieth Century, a few years after World War Three turned Washington D.C. into green glass and did similar things to other cities across the globe.  The American government has fallen under the power of the Thinkers, a group whose methods have produced scientific miracles, despite their philosophy sounding like a bunch of malarkey to anyone who has actual science training.

As you might guess, the Thinkers are charlatans ala Dianetics.  But one of them is in fact a true believer, which leads him to a collision course with tragedy.  This story has a particularly strong final line, and a surprisingly good female character.

“Common Denominator” can be read on Project Gutenberg here.  “Appointment in Tomorrow” is likewise here.  Other than those, you’ll have to track down this issue yourself.

Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One written by Marv Wolfman, art by George Perez and Romeo Tanghal

By 1980, Marv Wolfman had come over to DC Comics from Marvel, but found himself writing one-shot team-up books, which he felt didn’t allow him the room to develop subplots and characterization the way he wanted to.  He offered to write a revival series for the Teen Titans, a book that had teamed up several kid sidekicks (and eventually some more obscure characters) for some years before dropping sales got the book cancelled.

The New Teen Titans Volume One

The Powers that Were turned his original proposal down, so Mr. Wolfman revised his proposal with several brand-new characters, going for more of a male-female balance than most teams of the time, and complementary personalities that would both cause conflict and bring the team together.  He also gave most of the group some sort of conflict with a father figure.  Robin trying to get out from under the shadow of Batman, Starfire’s weak-willed father selling her into slavery to save his world, Cyborg’s father being responsible for his needing massive cybernetic upgrades, Changeling having all his father figures vanish from his life, and Raven’s father being the demon Trigon.

That last was the plotline behind the first few issues, as Raven fled to Earth and assembled a team to battle her father’s planned invasion.  The first issue, however, made the alien Gordanian slavers the main focus, as Starfire needed to be rescued from them before she could join.  Raven also manipulated Kid Flash’s emotions (off-screen but it was pretty obvious) to make him loyal to her and thus willing to help out.

During that same story, the Titans accidentally made an enemy of Grant Wilson, who then in the second issue became the villain Devastator (using the 100% of your brain hokum) as part of a plan by the shadowy organization H.I.V.E. to acquire the services of his father, Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator.

The third issue introduced the first version of the Fearsome Five, a villain group put together by Dr. Light for mutual gain.  They were promptly hijacked by Psimon, one of their members who had been working for Trigon.

The next three issues were all about Trigon, starting with the Titans having to face off against the Justice League in an effort to keep the more powerful heroes from accidentally knocking out the one barrier between Trigon’s realm and Earth.  Mr. Wolfman notes that the sales had been going down issue by issue (and it did not help that #5, the issue where Trigon is fully revealed, had guest art by Curt Swan, rather than George Perez–Mr. Swan was a classic Superman artist, but just wrong for this title) but issue #6, the big finish, saw the sales climb and every issue after that for a while.

In issue #7, the Titans face off against their own headquarters, the Titans Tower, as the Fearsome Five had co-opted it in an effort to free Psimon from the fate Trigon had “rewarded” him with.  This issue also explained who Cyborg actually was, and mostly resolved his relationship with his father.

Issue #8 was a breather, so that several new subplots could be introduced, some of which stuck around for quite a while.

On the strength of the many subplots, engaging personalities, and stellar George Perez art, the New Teen Titans series became DC’s hottest title, and the closest competitor they had for Marvel’s X-Men under Chris Claremont.  One of the obvious Marvel-style touches was setting the series in the real life city of New York, rather than one of DC’s many fictional cities.

There are some elements that don’t come off as well in hindsight; Starfire’s personality, powers and cultural background seem written specifically to have her go around wearing as brief a costume as the Comics Code would allow, or even less.  Raven’s origin involves rape by deception, and Trigon comes across as almost cartoonishly evil for the sake of being evil.  Cyborg often takes the role of “angry young black man”, and his bickering with Changeling is not nearly as funny as the writer seems to think it is.  And of course, Raven’s emotional manipulation of Kid Flash is very skeevy, which is acknowledged in the story itself.

Still, this is an important part of comics history, and fans of the various Titans incarnations should enjoy it.  (With a caveat that kids who only know the Titans from the cartoons might find some of the material a bit much–junior high on up, please.)

Magazine Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2015

Magazine Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2015 edited by Trevor Quachri

Since its debut issue as Astounding Stories of Super-Science in January 1930, what would become Analog was one of the most influential, and often the most influential, science fiction magazines on the racks.  After I reviewed Analog  1 (a collection of stories from when the magazine made its main name change in 1960) last week, I was informed that this month’s issue was in fact the 1000th issue, the longest run of any science fiction magazine and a respectable milestone for any publication.  (It has skipped a number of months over the years, or April 2013 would have been the lucky number.)

Analog 1000

If the cover by Victoria Green looks a bit odd, it’s because it’s a “remix” of the very first cover (illustrating the story “The Beetle Horde” by Victor Rousseau and painted by H.W. Wessolowski) with the  genders reversed.  The editorial speaks about that first story (and the issue is available to read at Project Gutenberg!)

Former editors also get to pen a few words.  Stanley Schmidt talks about there always being new futures for science fiction writers to write about–no matter how many milestones are passed, there will be more to come.  Ben Bova writes of John W. Campbell and his influence on the field of science fiction (generally positive.)

Naturally, there is some fiction in this issue, beginning with “The Wormhole War” by Richard A. Lovett.  An attempt to send a wormhole to allow humans to travel to an Earth-like world in a distant star system ends disastrously.  Follow-up wormholes end equally badly, but much closer to home.  It dawns on the scientists that someone else is making wormholes, and they might not be too happy with us.  It’s a serviceable enough story.

“Very Long Conversations” by Gwendolyn Clare features exobiologist Becca and her alien partner Shurza helping with an archaeological dig that is developing some unusual results.  Possibly the vanished natives haven’t actually vanished–but then, where are they?  This story appears to be part of a series, and refers back to earlier events.  (One of the letters to the editor in this issue praises that another series story got a “previously on” section, but this one didn’t.)

“The Kroc War” by Ted Reynolds and William F. Wu is a tale of a  human/alien war told in brief reminiscences by the participants.  It is a condensed version of many war-related themes, such as the home government not living up to the principles its soldiers are supposedly fighting for, and the ending twist is not surprising if you think about it.

“Strategies for Optimizing Your Mobile Advertising” by Brenta Blevins may be titled like a business blog, but is actually about an artist taking on a  strenuous job because their art doesn’t pay well.  A crisis arises when his shirt stops working.  Amusing.

“The Odds” by Rod Collins is a rare second-person story, with a narrator emphasizing just how unlikely the scenario “you” find yourself in is.  It’s short, and describing the plot would give away the twist, so I’ll just say that it’s chilling.

“The Empathy Vaccine” by C.C. Finlay has a misleading title, as one of the characters admits.  The protagonist is visiting a doctor to be rid of his capacity for empathy, and doesn’t think through the implications to their logical conclusion.  Perhaps it is because his empathy was already too low.

“Flight” by Mack Hassler is a short poem about kinds of flight.  It’s okay, I guess.  (Long-time readers know modern poetry isn’t my thing.)

“Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson involves three people who have been assigned to evaluate human colonies sent into space millenia ago to see if they are a threat to humanity, and if so to destroy them.  This is their final stop, and perhaps their hardest decision.   Is preserving civilization as it exists worth losing the potential that this new direction offers?  Disturbing.

“Ships in the Night” by Jay Werkheiser is a tale of a near-first encounter with aliens spun by a spacer to colonists in a local bar.  Physicists may catch the twist in the story before the end.

“The Audience” by Sean McMullen rounds out the fiction with a tale of first contact gone horribly wrong.  It turns out there’s another planet passing through the Oort cloud, one that’s inhabited.  Unfortunately, the aliens aren’t  the sort humans are ready to deal with, and it’s up to a storyteller to spin a yarn that will save the day.

That first issue of Astounding.
That first issue of Astounding.

One of the things I notice reading this issue as compared to even the 1960 stories in Analog 1 is diversity of protagonists.  In the earlier stories, women are love interests and faithful assistants at best, and a non-WASP protagonist is something special that has to be justified.  Now, women, people of various ethnicities, and more…unusual protagonists are able to appear with it being “no biggie.”

The fact article is “Really Big Tourism” by Michael Carroll, talking about the possibilities of the Solar System’s gas giants for tourist visits (once we lick the problem of getting there.)

“The Analog Millenium” by Mike Ashley gives us all the statistics we need about the magazine’s 1000 issues.   There are a few surprises in here!

The usual departments of letters to the editor, book reviews (mostly psionics-based stories this month) and upcoming events are also present.

This issue is certainly worth picking up as a collector’s item, if nothing else.  I liked “The Kroc War” and “The Empathy Vaccine” best of the stories.  If you haven’t read science fiction in a long time, you might find the  evolution of the genre interesting to consider.

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