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Ta-Nehisi Coates' re-imagining of the black comic hero the Black Panther, is thoughtful, exciting, deeply political, and - sadly - too much for Marvel and its core readers, as the series has been cancelled. But we will have what Coates has already done with the series, as a testament to what hero comics can be.

Vol 1 of Black Panther, titled A Nation Under Our Feet, delivers us into a country in great turmoil. Previous writers - as I learn from various summaries on the Internet - have left the series a legacy of contradictions and tragedies. The country of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African society largely hidden from the rest of the world, ruled by a long line of absolute monarchs with mystical powers able to become the Black Panther. An orphaned king who left his people to be a superhero to the outside world, bringing the destructive wrath of evil supervillains down on the country he left in the hands of others.

Coates begins with a Wakanda in chaos. Unrest, rebellion, revolution threaten. The king, T'Challa, is here no wise and benevolent king, but a confused and conflicted man, not understanding why his people are at war with each other, and with him. The first novel casts T'Challa as, in fact, the 'bad guy' by default, because of his lack of comprehension, his lack of connection to his people. The various rebels seem on the side of good - especially the two renegade warriors Ayo and Aneka. Formerly members of the king's elite, all-female bodyguard (shades of the Dahomey warrior-wives of the king), they have become vigilantes fighting against a brutal leader in northern Wakanda whose regime is one of enslavement and rape of women. It is in this subplot that we most clearly see that T'Challa - and his advisors and military leaders and others of the royal faction - are completely out of touch with the situation of the people, and trapped in an out-moded mythos in which the king's word is unquestioned law, and tradition outweighs true justice. If T'Challa is to learn to become both leader and hero, he has a long way to go.

The artwork, by Brian Stelfreeze, is strong and powerful, with appropriate touches of a softer and more mystical style when the subject matter demands it.

I will be reading all there is of this Black Panther, and sorrowing when the story comes to its untimely end.

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China Mièville's novella This Census-Taker is a collection of mysteries, memories half-remembered, truths half-told, stories layered one on the other that may or may not be about the same thing, by the same person.

There was a boy, who lived with his mother and father on the side of a mountain, just above the main part of a town that spread across two hills. The boy learned to read from his mother, and learned to fear his father. A boy who saw something so terrible his mind could not encompass it, his tongue could not communicate it, his fellow townspeople could not believe him when he tried to explain it.

Later there was a man who was either a prisoner or a guest, who had three books to write, one in figures, one in words, one in secret.

There was a census taker, who came to the boy's house, and spoke to his father, and then took the boy away to become a trainee. And before him, there was another trainee, who disappeared leaving only a warning for the boy who came after her, who became the man writing the books.

There are no answers to any if the questions, the mysteries, the disappearances. There is only memory of what was seen and heard, but never known and understood.

It is an unsettling story, full of implied violence and without anything that feels like an end. But it stays with you.

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Lately, I've been reading with an eye to making Hugo nominations, so this batch of short fiction reads is mostly selected from various lists of recommendations.


"The City Born Great," N. K. Jemisin; Tor.com, September 9, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/09/28/the-city-born-great/

An urban fantasy - though not the kind we're used to - about the gritty birth and life of the great cities, set in New York. Evocative and filled with a sense of urgency that pulls the reader toward its conclusion.


"This Is Not a Wardobe Door," A. Merc Rustad; Fireside Magazine Issue #29, January 2016
http://www.firesidefiction.com/issue29/chapter/this-is-not-a-wardrobe-door/

A story about imagination and hope and holding on to the magic of childhood when you believed you could change the world. At the end, I was crying.


"Checkerboard Planet," Eleanor Arnason; ClarkesWorld, December 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/arnason_12_16/

A new Lydia DuLuth talr from Arnason is always a treat. In this novelette, the AIs who control the interstellar stargates have asked Lydia to investigate conditions on a planet with a most peculiar ecology - the entire land mass and parts of the oceans are organised into giant squares, all of similar size, with all the life forms in each square the same colour. The planet has been colonised by a biogenetics corporation which, the AIs fear, is not acting in the best interests of the planet or humanity. An anti-imperialist first contact story with a gentle and at times even whimsical touch.


"Fifty Shades of Grays," Steven Barnes; Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/fifty-shades-grays/

Carver Kofax is a master at marketing and sales. But when he and his colleague (and romantic interest) Rhonda, land the corporation they work for a lucrative and highly secretive contract, the nature of the campaign demands all their skills - and leads to unexpected and dire consequences for all of humanity. Barnes handles the revelations in the narrative and the protagonist's growing unease with a sure hand. Content warning: this novelette contains sexually explicit kink.


"A Dead Djinn in Cairo," P. Djeli Clark; tor.com, May 18, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/05/18/a-dead-djinn-in-cairo/

In an alternate pre-WWI Cairo, where djinn and angels from other dimensions mingle with humans, Special Inspector Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities investigates the apparent suicide of a djinn, only to discover a mad plot to destroy humanity. Will the dapper young inspector solve the mystery in time? Clark's novelette is a delighful genre-bending fantasy thriller with a touch of steampunk. Cairo comes to life in complex and sensual detail, and Fatma is a character I'd love to see again.


"The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight," E. Lily Yu, Uncanny Magazine, Sept-Oct 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/witch-orion-waste-boy-knight/

A relatively young and inexperienced witch decides to accompany a young knight errant seeking dragons to kill, and learns a few bitter lessons about honor, trust and pride.


"The Green Knight’s Wife," Kat Howard; Uncanny Magazine, November 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/green-knights-wife/

A compelling riff on the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, told from the perspective of the Green Knight's wife, in which one of those women who is always on the sidelines in such hero tales, treated as merely part of the mythic machinery, takes up agency and acts for herself.


"Foxfire, Foxfire," Yoon Ha Lee; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 3, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/foxfire-foxfire/

A novelette blending fantasy and sf, set in a Asian- derived alternate universe where loyalists and rebels do battle with giant powered mechas. A young spirit fox with a great desire to become human - which he can only achieve by killing and eating 100 humans - is faced with difficult choices when captured by a mecha pilot. A story about transformations, and finding one's self.


"Unauthorized Access," An Owomoyela; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/unauthorized-access/

You would think a high profile hacker who's already spent time in prison for releasing government information that there was no reason to hide would be seriously radicalised - but for Aedo Leung, getting out of jail is only the beginning. A cautionary tale about the sequestration of public information that has suddenly become even more timely and appropriate.

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In her novel All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders defies conventions and overthrows dichotomies with a joyous aplomb. A story that is both science fiction and fantasy, about a boy who dreams of rockets and time machines and a girl who can talk to the birds and the trees, about the war between those who value technology over nature and those who value nature over technology, about those who think man can be outside of, control and manipulate the natural world and those who think man is a part of and must live within and be guided by it.

As children, Patricia and Laurence are both outcasts - misunderstood, bullied, gaslighted, rejected by parents, schoolmates and the educational system itself. They form a fragile alliance, which even as it grows is being undermined by Theodolphus Rose, an assassin turned guidance counselor who has had a mystical vision that they will grow up to start an apocalyptic war between science and magic. Together they create a true AI, using Laurence's code and Patricia's non-linear conversations with the nascent intelligence - an AI that Laurence names Peregrine and sets free to evolve. Eventually their friendship, frayed by Rose's manipulations and lies, shatters when Patricia allows Laurence to see her doing magic.

Seven years later, Laurence is working with a semi-underground group of scientific geniuses trying to find a way to save at least part of the human race from the coming global upheaval being triggered by climate change. Their plan is to find a way to move large numbers of people to another planet, leaving the earth behind to face its destruction. Meanwhile, Patricia has been taken into the fellowship of witches, and trained in the two branches of magic, Healing and Trickery. The witches are devoting their energies to an attempt to balance the energies of the planet, serving nature through small acts of healing or prevention, developing their own solution, one that will preserve the earth at the cost of humanity.

When Laurence and Patricia meet each other once more, the path is set for a dramatic and violent confrontation, but beyond that, a chance for reconciliation of man and nature, science and magic, and for a future where empathy and understanding can open the door to the survival of all.

I've never been fond of Cartesian divides, and the skill with which Anders exposes the humanity vs. nature, intuition vs logic axes as barren and ultimately destructive was quite gratifying. I also appreciated the focus on ethical decisions - everyone in the novel is trying to do the ethical thing, based on their partial understanding - and the ease with which ethical reasoning can be subverted to questionable ends when it is not tempered with empathy and compassion.

But this is much more than a novel of ideas. The characters are appealing despite their flaws, the writing is crisp, and the style engaging. The story flows smoothly, and it isn't until you get to the end that you realise just how much there is to think about. Well worth the critical praise it has received.

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I'm still mulling over Scott Hawkins' debut novel, The Library at Mount Char, some time after finishing it. It's a compelling read, if you can handle the extreme blood-letting and sometimes calculated, sometimes thoughtless, cruelty, despite being thrown into the middle of things without any guidebook and an extremely unreliable narrator.

It's the story of a community of godlings, formerly ordinary children, raised by a cold, cruel, and demanding father - a being 60,000 years old who can alter time, raise the dead (useful if you decide the best way to discipline your adopted child is to burn him alive inside a hollow metal bull), and do a great many other incredible things, all before teatime. When the novel opens, Father is missing, and some unknown power has forced the godlings - librarians, as they call themselves, from the fact that their Father has required each of them to become expert in one of 12 "catalogs" of knowledge that he has written - out of their home, The Library. It slowly becomes clear that this is, intentionally or not, the trigger for a power struggle between the librarians, or at least those who believe they are capable of talking up the reins of Father's power.

The two main candidates are David, the master of the catalogue of war, and Carolyn, the master of the catalogue of languages. Yet despite their rivalry, they are at the same time co-operating, along with their brothers and sisters, each one a master of some catalogue of knowledge, in trying to find out what has happened to Father, and what is keeping them from the Library. Bearing in mind, always, that it might actually be one of them, or another of the librarians, behind everything.

It's also the story of two somewhat unusual men who are drawn into the apparent chaos - Steve and Erwin. Both are men with ambiguous pasts, one chosen - perhaps at random, perhaps not - by Carolyn, and the other a special government investigator who has noticed some of Carolyn's activities in the world beyond the Library and is on her trail.

Hawkins has done some fascinating worldbuilding here, drawing on theological and cosmological theory imagery from many cultures to create a unique view of time, the universe, and godhead. It's also an examination of the ethos of divinity, and as such, leaves many questions unanswered.

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Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's debut novel, is a rich and complex tale of power, music, magic, and love, told in two times and set in the working class neighbourhoods of Mexico City.

For 15-year-old Mercedes "Meche" Vega, music is the structure of her life, what connects her to her father - an alcoholic dreamer who never manages to carry through with his dreams - and to the magic she discovers within herself. Her family is breaking apart under the weight of her father's fecklessness and her mother's disappointment. The only subject that interests her at school is math. She's an outsider among the other young people in the neighbourhood. So when magic comes her way, and she - and her friends Sebastian and Daniela, outsiders themselves - discover that together they can use music to cast magic spells to make their lives better - and the lives of those who torment them worse - it seems only right that they should.

In her mid-thirties, Meche is a programmer, living in Oslo, when her father's death brings her home to Mexico City for the funeral. When she meets Sebastian and Daniela again, old grudges, mistakes and betrayals rise to the surface that demand resolution.

The narrative weaves between past and present, unraveling the complicated relationships between the three friends, and between Meche and her family. Power - interpersonal, magical, institutional - is used and abused, to ends that become increasingly disruptive and divisive. But in the end this is a love story, where the path not taken - indeed, the path carelessly cast away in youth - is not forever lost.

As a person rather deeply involved with music myself, I loved the way musical references, from jazz greats to Latin music to the Who, were woven into the narrative. I could hear major parts of the soundtrack of Meche's adolescent life and her forays into sorcery, which made reading the novel all the more engaging.

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All the short fiction mentioned here was published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine March/April 2015


"A Residence for Friendless Ladies," Alice Sola Kim - In this atmospheric novelette, a young trans man is forced to live as a woman when he is sent to stay with his grandmother, who runs an eerie and forbidding home for women - part hostel, part finishing school, part prison - who don't quite fit into society's roles. An unflinching look at identity denied and the courage needed to open closed doors.

"The Mantis Tattoo," Paul M. Berger - A trickster story in an African-inspired setting. Mantis the trickster chooses a young man to serve him, and sends him on his first mission - to save his people from the return of their historical enemies.

"Things Worth Knowing," Jay O'Connell - A highly dystopic look at the direction of privatised education and corporate recruitment.

"La Héron," Charlotte Ashley - A mysterious swordswoman registers for the Black Bouts of Caen - a tournament of duellists that draws contestants from as distant a place as the lands of faerie.

"This Is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang," Brian Dolton - An interesting take on the death and rebirth of the universe, with a rather unusual and determined heroine.

"Last Transaction," Nik Constantine - structured as a sequence of computer communications to a future citizen of a highly automated society, you think you know where this will end up... But you'd be wrong.

"Little Girls in Bone Museums," Sadie Bruce - a disturbing piece about the ways that women have distorted and tortured their bodies to adhere to male standards of beauty, accepted objectification in the place of respect, and convinced themselves that this will make them happy.

"A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell," Jonathan L. Howard - Sooner or later, bartenders see everything. This is a delightfully whimsical story about a day in the life of bartender in a place called Helix, and the twisty temporal paradoxes his time-travelling customers have been getting into.

"How to Masquerade As a Human before the Invasion," Jenn Reese - a short short story about passing for human. Its advice will be shockingly familiar to those of us who never quite fit in

"A Users Guide to Increments of Time," Kat Howard - two sorcerers whose magic can steal time become lovers , but cannot help stealing time - first to have more time together, and later, once love has altered, to destroy each other.

"Bilingual," Henry Lien - a young girl sets out to find a way to communicate with dolphins in the wild about threats from human hunters. Told almost entirely via Tweets.

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Bao Shu's speculative novella What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear seems at first to be a straight-forward non-genre story about a young boy in modern-day China - excerpt of course, for that thing about him being born on the day the world was supposed to end, but obviously it didn't. You read on, thinking that's going to become the sfnal bit, but it isn't really mentioned again, and the boy just keeps growing older and having perfectly normal boychild experiences.

Then things get a bit confusing, and you start wondering just when he is supposed to have bern born - you try to remember in what year the Beijing Olympics took place, and when the Arab Spring happened in relation to that, and you wonder if maybe your memory has faded or if maybe the author got something a bit wrong. Then you decide that no, your memory of current events can't be that bad, and that no author is going to screw up that many references, so you decide that this is some kind of alternate history story, in which things happened in a different way than in our own world.

And then you notice the pattern. And you remember that Xie Baosheng was four when the Olympics were in Beijing, and that there was a four-year gap between those Olympics and the day the Mayan Long Cycle calendar ran out in in 2012. And that's when it hits you.

What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear isn't just a moving story about a man, the woman he loves all his life, and how he is shaped and his life is directed by the times he lives in. It's also a meditation on time and history - how we perceive then, how we understand them, how we try to create meaning and causality out of the passing of time and events. It is profoundly human, and profoundly philosophical, all at once.

And kudos as well to Ken Liu, whose translation of this and other Chinese works of science fiction is making the global conversation of ideas wider and richer.

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I seem to be on a bit of a short fiction binge. Trying to read some stories from 2015, recommended in various places, that interest me.



"The Missing Guest," Alice Sola Kim, December 22, 2015, Lenny
http://www.lennyletter.com/culture/a200/the-missing-guest/

An unsettling story about friendship circles and outsiders, about being both participant and observer, with distinct undertones of the weird. I'm still not sure who the missing guest is, nor am I certain that I'm supposed to be.


"Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight," Aliette de Bodard, January 2015, Clarkesworld
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/debodard_01_15/

A nuanced portrayal of the varied responses to grief, set in de Bodard's Xuya Empire universe. A scientist whose work is vital to the future of the Empire dies, and her children - one of whom is a Mindship - and the woman who must carry on her mentor's work follow different paths in grieving. Moving piece, well written, with strong characterisation.


"Variations on an Apple," Yoon Ha Lee, October 2015, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/10/14/variations-on-an-apple-yoon-ha-lee/

A scintillating sciencefictional symphony of imaginings drawn upon the myths of the apple of discord and the siege of Troy. Lee does things with words and images and multi-layered references to music and mathematics that I can't even begin to describe. An ever-shifting but never-changing meditation on desire, choice and conflict.


"Adult Children of Alien Beings," Dennis Danvers, August 2015, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/08/19/adult-children-of-alien-beings-dennis-danvers/

A somewhat pedestrian novelette that literalises the feelings of difference and - if you'll pardon the pun - alienation that most of us experience. A middle-aged man uncovers evidence suggesting that his parents may not have been who, or what, they seemed to be, and embarks on a search for the truth - but ultimately realises there is a better way to resolve his crisis of self.


"Pockets," Amal el-Mohtar, February 2015, Uncanny Magazine
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/pockets/

Nadia has a peculiar problem. She keeps finding things in her pockets. Things she's never seen before, things that make no sense and have no apparent relevance to her life. Things that could not possibly be in her pocket, that are larger than any pocket she owns. El-Mohtar treats this surreal premise with the greatest seriousness, and brings it to a profound conclusion that speaks both to the mystery of the connections between people and the power of the creative impulse.


"Cassandra," Ken Liu, March 2015, Clarkesworld
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/liu_03_15/

A meditation on the nature of causality, the meaning of free will, and the morality of interference wrapped up in a super-hero tale, in which the villain is a vigilante acting on pre-cognition in an attempt to save the innocent while the iconic defender of truth and justice focuses on protecting the proper unfolding of time, come what may.


"Eye," Wole Talabi, February, 2015, Liquid Imagination
http://liquidimagination.silverpen.org/article/eye-wole-talabi/

Powerful piece of flash fiction about impossible, abhorrent choices. How far will a mother go, what will she sacrifice, to save the life of one of her children?

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I've been binging a bit on short fiction in the past few days. Between K. Tempest Bradford's weekly column on io9, and the new source for short fic recs, SFEditorsPicks (on Twitter and Facebook), in addition to all the standard review sites (Lois Tilton's short fic reviews at Locus, for example) there are lots of leads available to good short sff pieces. Here are some of the ones I thought sounded interesting.


"Damage" by David D. Levine, January 21, 2015, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/01/21/damage-david-levine/

An impressive and engaging milsf offering, the story's narrator is an AI hosted in the one-man combat ship JB6847½ (known affectionately as Scraps to the technician who assembled and services her) - a ship cobbled together from the remains of two crippled vessels, with the memories of both. Like other ships, she has been imprinted on her pilot, an iron-jawed and laconic warrior who knows himself to be the best pilot in the system and dreams of heroic destiny. Fighting on the losing side of a war between Earth and the Belt colonies, they are sent on a final mission which troubles Scraps greatly, although her beloved Captain accepts his orders with relish. In my opinion, this story is everything that 2015 Hugo Nominee "Turncoat" by Steve Rzasa should have been, but wasn't.


"These Were the Transitional Years" by Zak Smith, September 10, 2015, Motherboard
http://motherboard.vice.com/read/these-were-the-transitional-years

Very much reminiscent of the 1970s New Wave consumerist dystopias, this story provides a glimpse of a future where the means of satisfying every urge is at hand - but human relationships have been lost. Adult sexual situations and language.


"The Deepest Rift" by Ruthanna Emrys, June 24, 2015, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/06/24/the-deepest-rift-ruthanna-emrys/

In the deepest rift in all the inhabited worlds, a winged species known as mantas create sculptures from their own body secretions - but are they sentient, and do the sculptures constitute a language? Four scientists think the answer is yes, but their research so far is inconclusive. The story explores communication on many levels - within the team, one member of which is deaf and speaks in sign, between the team members and the AI that has come to determine whether their research should continue, among the mantas. Thought-provoking.


"The Sill and the Dike" by Vajra Chandrasekera, September 2015, Nightmare Magazine
http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/the-sill-and-the-dike/

In this story about the personal and cultural consequences of war, the unnamed narrator/protagonist is the only person out of an entire family to survive a long and bloody war with unspecified "aliens" who came to steal land but in the end "bled red just like people." Well-crafted and memorable.


"The End of the War" by Django Wexler, June, Asimov's Magazine

A tightly plotted milsf-themed novelette. In this space-living civilization, humanity lives in two vast Arks - Circea and Minoa - which are at war with each other. This is a micro-war, based on competition for resources, as salvage operators from the two sides, singly or in small groups, battle over the bodies of dead ships; the winner takes all, but the loser usually survives to fight again. For the operators, this is more of a job than a war, and communication between those on both sides is common. In many ways, I was reminded of jousts or melees between knights in the medieval romances, who adopt a code of honor in which one side, after demonstrating superiority in the field, allows the defeated opponent the chance to retire with honour. Over the course of several encounters, the protagonist, a Circean named Myr, establishes such a relationship with the Minoan operator Gar, one that plays a significant role in determining the outcome of Myr's final mission - its goal, to end the war.


"The Closest Thing to Animals" by Sofia Samatar, September 2015, Fireside Magazine Issue #27
http://www.firesidefiction.com/issue27/chapter/the-closest-thing-to-animals/

Always a handmaiden, never a person of significance in her own right - this is how S., the otherwise nameless protagonist of the story, sees herself. Always living close to art, to fame, she has a gift for finding creative people just before they come into the public eye - but her relationships never seem to last. Desperate to be known and seen - and to know and see herself - as an artist yet lacking the trust to create, wrapt in envy and blame, she latches onto another artist, Hodan Mahmoud. In her quest to make Hodan a star, to attach herself more permanently to greatness - not realising that Hodan has been through that mill already - she has at last the chance to confront the things that have held her back. The story is timeless, the setting profoundly sfnal, with oblique references to quarantines that suggest a past, partial apocalypse of sorts. Deeply moving, profoundly human.


"Chasing Comets" by Brian Trent, September 2015, Crossed Genres Issue #33
http://crossedgenres.com/magazine/033-chasing-comets/

A powerful story about love, aspirations, possibilities, grief and guilt. A young boy, Sammy, longs to grow up to be an astronaut. His father encourages the dream, but at what cost? To say more would be to say too much.

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More short stories and novelettes from around the net.


"The Shape of My Name," Nino Cipri, March 15, 2015, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/03/04/the-shape-of-my-name/

This was an amazing story about creating one's own identity. The narrator is part of a multi-generational time-travelling family whose members have access to gene-coded time capsules enabling them to travel into any time between 1905, the year that the mysterious Moses Stone built the machine for the family matriarch, and August 3, 2321 - the significance of that date is unknown to the characters, but my guess is that it's the date from which Moses travelled back in time to build the machine that would allow forward travel. But that's not part of the story, really. The story is about creating identity and finding freedom from ingrained expectations.


"When It Ends, He Catches Her," Eugie Foster, September 26, 2014, Daily Science Fiction
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/fairy-tales/eugie-foster/when-it-ends-he-catches-her

One of the short stories that would have been on the Hugo ballot this year had the Puppies not done their thing, and Foster's last story, published just before she died. A poignant and evocative story of love, art and death, two dancers rekindling the memories of their greatest achievement in the midst of the ruins of civilisation.


"Litany of Earth," Ruthanna Emrys, May 14, 2014, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2014/05/14/the-litany-of-earth-ruthanna-emrys/

Another piece that might have been nominated fir a Hugo if not for the puppies, Emrys' novelette is a majestic and powerful reworking of the Cthulhu mythos, ever mindful of the fact that the winners not only write the history books, they demonise the ones who lose. Emrys presents the people of Innsmouth and other such communities as a race of immortal others among us, with a faith and a knowledge no more evil than any other, persecuted, incarcerated, experimented on and killed for their difference. A must-read for those who once loved Lovecraft but lament his casual racism.


"Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land," by Ruthanna Emrys, August 20, 2014, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2014/08/20/seven-commentaries-on-an-imperfect-land-ruthanna-emrys/

I was sufficiently blown away by Emrys' "Litany of Earth" to want to read more. And I was not disappointed in doing so. "Seven Commentaries" is a perfect pearl. Told in seven vignettes filled with glorious detail, it is about communities of the heart and soul, the perseverance of imagination and hope, the healing and binding power of story, and seeing the spirit of your sister in a stranger's eyes.


"Kin, Painted," by Penny Stirling, July 29, 2015, Lackington's Magazine
http://lackingtons.com/2015/07/29/kin-painted-by-penny-stirling/

Lackington's specifies that they are specifically interested in publishing stylised speculative prose, and I must admit to enjoying stylised prose (when well-done, of course), but more than just being stylised, this piece by Penny Stirling was a beautiful thing to read. An extended metaphor on growing up and making personal choices, notable for its references to persons of many genders and preferences.

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This, the fourth Heiresses of Russ anthology, edited by Melissa Scott and Steve Berman, his like the previous volumes a diverse assortment of science fiction and fantasy short fiction featuring protagonists (and often other characters as well) who are lesbians. The very fact that this has become an annual anthology series is a testament to the growing number of authors - lesbian and otherwise - who choose to write about all the varieties of love, and the readers who either see themselves in these stories, or simply read them because they are interesting stories.

In such a diverse anthology, it is inevitable that some stories will have a greater impact on any given reader. For me, the stand-out stories here are:

Counting Down the Seconds, Lexy Wealleans - in a premise reminiscent of the wonderful indie film Timer, people of this future world wear devices that tell them how long it will be until they meet their true love.

Her Infinite Variety, Sacchi Green - a different take on the death of Cleopatra.

The Coffinmaker's Love, Alberto Yáñez - an interesting and deeply moving variation on the motif of Death and the maiden.

Selected Program Notes from the Retrospect­ive Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer, Kenneth Schneyer - a story of love and healing told in program notes.

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Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys is, to put it bluntly, a mindfuck, albeit an engaging and enjoyable one. Even when you've read the final sentence, you're still going to be wondering how much of what you've read was all in the minds of one or more of the characters.

It begins in a white room.
It's a room an uninspired playwright might conjure while staring at a blank page: White walls. White ceiling. White floor. Not featureless, but close enough to raise suspicion that its few contents are all crucial to the upcoming drama.

A woman sits in one of two chairs drawn up to a rectangular white table. Her hands are cuffed in front of her; she is dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit whose bright hue seems dull in the whiteness. A photograph of a smiling politician hangs on the wall above the table. Occasionally the woman glances up at the photo, or at the door that is the room’s only exit, but mostly she stares at her hands, and waits.

The door opens. A man in a white coat steps in, bringing more props: a file folder and a handheld tape recorder.
Thus the frame of the story is set. All that actually happens over the course of the novel happens in this room between these people. The woman, accused of murder and suspected of madness, is called Jane Charlotte; the man who is here to uncover her truths - if he can - is called Dr. Richard Vale. The woman will tell him an increasingly fantastic story about her childhood, her mother and brother, and her experiences as an assassin for an organisation dedicated to fighting evil. He will counter her story with information from public records that call what she recounts into question. She will discount some if what he says as misinformation planted by the organisation she works for, and acknowledge some of it as the stories she tells herself because the truth is too painful. In the end, it is possible that no one in this room and nothing that was said is what it appeared to be.

The process of getting to that end is fascinating.

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One thing I'm loving about what's happening in the world of sff anthology editing these days is the growing number of projects devoted in one way or another to supporting the concept of diversity. Because, as editors Rose Fox and Daniel José Older note in the Introduction to their anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History,
We grew up reading stories about people who weren’t much like us. Speculative fiction promised to take us to places where anything was possible, but the spaceship captains and valiant questers were always white, always straight, always cisgender, and almost always men. We tried to force ourselves into those boxes, but we never fit. When we looked for faces and thoughts like our own, we found orcs and deviants and villains. And we began to wonder why some people’s stories were told over and over, while ours were almost never even alluded to.
The brief for this anthology was simple: to publish stories of speculative history, set between 1400 and the early 1900s, stories that are grounded in real events, that focus on marginalised people, and that have a speculative element. The stories in this anthology for the most part do this very well. They speak in the voices of the ones who did not have the power to tell their history, who were subsumed and made to disappear into the dominant narrative of the powerful, the colonisers, the privileged.
Most written chronicles of history, and most speculative stories, put rulers, conquerors, and invaders front and center. People with less power, money, or status—enslaved people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, laborers, women, people with disabilities, the very young and very old, and religious minorities, among others—are relegated to the margins. Today, mainstream history continues to perpetuate one-sided versions of the past while mistelling or erasing the stories of the rest of the world. (http://longhidden.com/)
The stories collected in Long Hidden are examples of resistance to this dominant master narrative of history. And there is much good reading here.

Worth noting is that this excellent and prigressively-themed anthology comes from a small press - Crossed Genres (http://crossedgenres.com/) - that seems to be doing some intetesting projects. I have several more of their books in my TBR pile, and a few more on my To Be Acquired list.

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Lately I've found myself drawn to anthologies of SFF by writers from a single country, ethnicity or geographical area. So far this year I've read three such books.


AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, Ivor W. Hartmann (ed.)

In his introduction to the anthology, editor Ivor Hartmann says: "SciFi is the only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective. Moreover, it does this in a way that is not purely academic and so provides a vision that is readily understandable through a fictional context. The value of this envisioning for any third-world country, or in our case continent, cannot be overstated nor negated. If you can’t see and relay an understandable vision of the future, your future will be co-opted by someone else’s vision, one that will not necessarily have your best interests at heart. Thus, Science Fiction by African writers is of paramount importance to the development and future of our continent."

It's just as important for those in the first-world countries from whence the co-opting generally comes to read these African futures. To read stories set in futuristic metropolises named Lagos and Tshwane, with characters named Wangari Maathai and Julius Masemola. Stories that come from other histories and perspectives than their own, stories in which white people from Europe or North America are barely present if at all, and have no role to play in the imagined futures. I can only say thank you to Ivor Hartmann for collecting these stories and making them available.



Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain, Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan (eds.)

A very interesting and valuable survey anthology of science fiction short stories by Hispanic and Latino authors from Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and South America, from the early days of science fiction writing to modern day. The collection includes some very powerful pieces, many of which have a much stronger element of political awareness, analysis and critique than one might expect to find in a representative sampling of North American science fiction writing.



It Came from the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction, Desirina Boskovich (ed.)

An interesting collection of SFF stories from Finnish authors. After having recently read Johanna Sinisalo's Birdbrain (and before that After Sundown, published in English as Troll: A Love Story) I was perhaps primed to notice how strong a role that nature plays in many of these stories. Landscapes, geology, animals, organic growth, ecology - use of these elements seemed to be more prevalent than in collections that tend to be more focused on American and occasionally British writers.

Very much worth reading.

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Or at least, that's what my choices of anthologies this year would seem to indicate. My beloved Lovecraft mythos and the eternally fascinating Great Detective are part of the mix, as is my perennial interest in seeing alternative sexualities represented in fiction.

As usual, in all four antholgies there were some great stories, many enjoyable stories, and one or two that just didn't grab me. Special mention goes to Brit Mandelo's fine editing, bringing together a solid collection that presents many perspectives and includes some true classics.


Ross E. Lockhart (ed.), The Book of Cthulhu

Joseph R. G. DeMarco, A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes

Laurie R. King & Leslie S. Klinger (eds.), A Study in Sherlock

Brit Mandelo (ed.), Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction

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My Death, Lisa Tuttle.

Lately I seem to have been reading, by happenstance I presume, books that in one way or another make me think about what I can only describe as the secret history of women, and the ways in which women as whole, real individuals are erased in our culture and its products. Sometimes it’s been an obvious theme, the writer’s intent being to examine either the reality of women’s lives, or some aspect of how women are disappeared and what they may have been doing that no one wanted to, or was able to, record. Sometimes – as in some of the classic SFF (written by men) that I’ve been re-reading of late - it has been about the total absence of women, or the absence of independence and agency in the women who are represented. Sometimes, it’s just been about a sense that there are untold women’s stories behind a narrative that’s focused more on the stories of men – something that would be less problematic if only there were as many narratives where men’s stories were left in the background in order to tell the stories of women.

Lisa Tuttle’s My Death is very much a story about ways in which women’s stories are erased – and reclaimed. It is also at some levels a vast metaphor for the act of creation when artist and subject merge in order to create a new vision.

In this novella, an unnamed narrator, an author still working through her grief at the death of her husband, is led by a series of apparent coincidences to embark upon writing a biography of an earlier novelist (supposedly a contemporary of Virginia Woolf et.al.) who influenced her when she was younger and which whom she has always felt a strange sense of connection. This novelist – Helen Ralston – had served as model and muse for her older lover and former teacher Willy Logan, whose paintings and novels became well-known, while Ralston’s slipped into obscurity. Ralston, thus, is simultaneously the women whose work is overshadowed by the man she is associated with, and the woman whose individuality is erased by her assigned function as inspiration.

The narrator’s quest to discover what happened to the real woman behind the muse leads her to the discovery of a painting by Ralston, titled “My Death,” which is a visual paradox, simultaneously picturing an island that she and her lover visit; and a woman’s body with the focus on her exposed vulva – yet another form of disappearing of the real woman, this time through the classic tropes of woman as the earth/the land/the soil and woman as sex.

There is much more to this novel, including a profound shift in perspective near the end that cannot be logically reconciled yet illuminates the core truths that Tuttle has to offer about the distinction between Woman as muse and women who themselves create art, between women who are observed, submerged, erased, and women who are seen, known, remembered for who they are as individuals and what they do for themselves.

It is only after this shift takes place that the speculative elements of this work emerge, but once they do, it becomes apparent that this novella – one of the Conversation Pieces series published by Aqueduct Press – lies securely within the scope of literary speculative fiction.

This not a book that can be understood wholly from a rational perspective, for like the painting that give the book its name, the story itself is more than one thing at once, and at the same time symbolic of other things entirely. But it works, and powerfully so, as a an exploration of women and their relations, historically and potentially, to art.
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The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet, Vandana Singh

This is a collection of short stories by the most remarkable Vandana Singh, whose work I am growing more and more in love with the more of it I read.

In these stories, Singh writes about apparently quite ordinary people – specifically, people who are often women and often Indian – who find themselves in strikingly unordinary situations and circumstances, or who suddenly feel distanced, alienated as it were, from what once seemed normal and familiar. Her gift for delineating character with subtlety, precision and sometimes gentle humour is in peak form here, enabling us to understand and identify with the rich humanity of her characters, and thus experience a universe much larger and richer than we normally encounter – learning greatly thereby.

As Singh notes in the essay that concludes the collection:
Speculative fiction is our chance to… find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder, and meaning, in the greater universe.
Singh sees another function for speculative fiction (beyond the simple fun of it all, which she also celebrates), one that is also at the heart of many of the stories in this collection:
Science fiction and fantasy posit other paths, alternative futures, different social arrangements as well as technologies, other ways that we could be. Before we do, we must dream.


I’d be hard pressed to pick a few favourites from this collection to talk about – they are all very, very good.

There’s an interesting review of The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet here.

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Blue Light, by Walter Mosley

I’m not really sure what to say about this book. Mosley’s prose is beautifully evocative, his characters are well-realised, and there is something about the way this novel is written that pulls the reader along, eagerly, anxiously, almost breathlessly, to the final pages… and yet I’m left feeling unfulfilled. And more than a little confused.

Blue Light is set in the 1960s, a time of breaking down of all kinds of barriers. People were questioning the accepted standards of social behaviour – rethinking sexual mores, challenging received “wisdom” in all manner of intellectual disciplines, questioning social conventions, exploring consciousness with meditation, drugs, spiritual and philosophical concepts from outside of the mainstream European tradition. It was the decade of the civil rights movement, the second wave of feminism, the beginning of gay liberation, the counter-culture, ecological consciousness, protest movements and revolutionary cadres, cults and communes, going back to the land and listening to the fairies at the bottom of the garden.

The novel, which has been variously classed as science fiction, fantasy and horror, could just as well be an account of the rise and fall of one of that chaotic decade’s more bizarre and violent religious cults-gone-wrong, if one dismisses the narrator’s recounting of unearthly sensations and experiences as the product of drugs or madness. And the matter of the reliability of the narrator is one of the key issues in my attempt to understand this book – because it seems to me that Mosley has written something that he wants people to think about, to try to understand.

The conceit of the book is that an ancient people or some other kind of consciousness from not of Earth has sent something, or perhaps simply released something without real intention – consciousness, a message, a mission, an infection, a collection of memories – into the vastness of space, where it has travelled for perhaps millions of years, and has perhaps encountered many planets, before some portion of it arrives on Earth, in 1965, in California. Perceived and later described by those who experience it as beams or shards or pieces or packets of “blue light,” this alien energy has diverse and unique affects on whatever life it touches – plant, animal, and human. Many of the creatures touched don’t survive the transformations, but among those that do are 16 humans, a pregnant coyote, a dog and a giant redwood tree. While we never are really certain what the blue light is or what it does, or was intended to do [1], the general effect on the human “Blues”[2] is to transform them from ordinary human beings into personifications or avatars of whatever kind of human experience they were most caught up in at the time of their transformation. A woman engaged in sex becomes an avatar of lust. A dying man becomes the personification of death, the enemy of all life. A murderer becomes an exemplar of mindless violence and destruction. A young woman with a curious mind becomes a seeker and eventual repository of human knowledge. And so on.[3]

The narrator is a mixed race former grad student named Lester Foote, who has taken the name of Chance. Not a Blue himself, he is rescued by the Blue “teacher” Ordé from a state of psychological collapse and suicidal despair brought about by his marginalised racial status and lack of a community of identity: “I spoke the white man's language. I dreamed his dreams. But when I woke up, no one recognized me.” Later, through a ritual involving sharing of blood with Ordé, a white ex-hippie turned leader of the Close Congregation, a cult-like community to which several of the Blues have been drawn, Chance becomes “half-blue,” and gains some powers of unusual perception. Still neither wholly of one people or another, Chance appoints himself the historian of the Blue Light.

The novel is organised into three sections. The first part introduces the situation and many of the key characters. One of its focuses is on Ordé, his mystical teachings based on his understanding of what has happened to him, the community of Blues and humans that gathers around him, his attempts to reproduce the blue light in human form – with lethal consequences – and the police who have begun to be suspicious of what they perceive as another hippie sex and drug cult. The other is on Grey Redstar, the name adopted by the energy/entity that animates the body of Horace LaFontaine as he lies dying in the path of the blue light. This section culminates in a confrontation between Redstar and the Close Congregation in which many of the Blues are killed, one of the police investigators is severely injured and some of the surviving Blues flee for safety in the company of Chance.

The second part focuses on the investigation of Greystar’s attack – as later told to Chance by the characters involved. In the course of the investigation, several more “half-blues” are formed as investigators and Blue witnesses/suspects/persons of interest interact.

The final part of the novel brings together the Blues who fled with Chance, the “half-blue” investigators, and a previously unseen Blue, Juan Thrombone [4], who has created a new Eden somewhere in the depths of a national redwood forest where he tends the seedlings of the blue redwood tree, yet another casualty of Grey Redstar. Thrombone hopes to preserve and foster the blues in this secret, safe space, but instead it becomes the site of the final confrontation between Grey Redstar and the surviving Blues.

The outcome is… inconclusive, and we are left at the end of the book not knowing if the influence of the blue light will continue in the Earth or not, and indeed, whether we really would have wanted it to survive. We never really learn where the transformation might have led humanity; there are enough acts of selfishness, carelessness and violence from all of the Blues, not just those who personify Violence and Death, to suggest that becoming blue may bring new powers and abilities and a new perspective, but not necessarily a better or more principled one, wise enough to use its gifts well.

Whatever might have been, the clear suggestion at the end is that the chance has come and gone. It’s the 1980s, Chance himself has been in a mental institution for a very long time, and he has no idea if any of the Blues are still alive. The book begins and ends with Chance’s madness, which is the result of Chance’s perpetual state of being neither one thing nor the other, neither black nor white, neither human nor blue.

The blue light – which could simply be a symbol for the phenomenon of the 60s and its various and often contradictory transformations – may be the topic of the novel but Chance is its protagonist. Is Mosley trying to say that our chance to unravel the weight of the past and try something new has also passed, leaving us with a lot of strange memories, but essentially unchanged? Or is there some other message in the fact that Chance has survived at all, and in the possibility that there may be some Blues who escaped the final confrontation between – not Good and Evil, but Life and Death?

Damned if I know.



[1] I’m reminded of H.P.Lovecraft’s short story, “The Colour out of Space” in which something, characterised as a colour, quite indescribable and incomprehensible, affects life in a relatively small geographic area for reasons that are never understood by the characters and never revealed to the reader.

[2] There's a lot of emphasis on how the blue light seems, to some, to be like music, or the how the inexplicable sense that draws the Blues to each other is a sound, a form of music. Are the Blues (regardless of race, as we see white, black, Asian and Hispanic Blues) somehow a personification of the blues, the musical art form that was developed by Blacks to express their own experiences?

[3] I’m not by any means an expert on the topic of the spirits of African and Caribbean tradition known as loas or orishas, but it seemed to me that at least some of the Blues can be linked to some of the more well-known loas, such as Papa Legba, Erzulie and Baron Samedi, and the way in which they seem to be possessed and altered may in some respects resemble the phenomenon of being possessed or “ridden” by a loa. I’ve looked at various reviews to see if anyone else has commented on these apparent similarities, and so far I haven’t found anyone else who sees this, so maybe I’m completely out to lunch.

[4] Juan Thrombone is a trickster/magician character; his human body is that of a Hispanic or Latino man, and while some reviewers have tried to identify him with characters from Tolkien’s created Anglo-Saxon mythology such as Gandalf or Tom Bombadil, I can’t help but associate him with Carlos Casaneda’s Yanqui sorcerer, Don Juan Matus.


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Atomik Aztex, Sesshu Foster

This book is a total mindfuck, and that’s a good thing. I simply could not get it out of my mind while I was reading it, and scenes keep coming back to jeer at me, asking me if I really think I figured it all out.

It’s a tale of two worlds, one of which is a brutal slice of life for a Latino worker in the meatpacking industry in Los Angeles sometime in the last half of the 20th century, and the other of which is the war diary of an warrior priest in an alternate universe in which the Spanish got their heads handed to them when they tried to invade Central America, and the great and powerful and bloodily metaphysical Aztec Nation is allied with Russia to defeat Germany during WWII.

Oh, yeah, the warrior-priest and the meatpacking plant worker are the same person, Zenzontli/Zenzon, shifting back and forth between possible universes. Or possibly the two are potential, alternate personalities, whose reality depends on whether you think the Spanish defeated the Aztec, or whether it's the other way around. At the beginning of the novel, you can usually tell which universe he’s in by the variant orthography being used, but toward the end of the novel, the differences between the orthographies of the two different worlds/timelines begin to merge.

The more realistic narrative thread is, among other things, a searing indictment of the meatpacking industry and an expose of the difficulties workers face in attempting to organise - which leads me to consider to what degree the dual storylines may be a literary response to Upton Sinclair's rainforest and survival of the fittest metaphors in his indictment of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle. Certainly there are some similar plot and thematic elements, especially the focus on labour union, and Zenzon, like Sinclair's hero Jurgis Rudkus, is an immigrant (from Central America rather than Lithuania), and an unusually strong man with a powerful work ethic.

But what are we to think of the alternate history plotline? Is it Sinclair's Jungle, where corruption and capitalism (and there is certainly corruption galore in the Aztec Empire Foster portrays) make it almost impossible for an honest, hard-working man to succeed? The Aztec Empire's power is magical, built on the harvesting of human hearts (another kind of slaughterhouse), and it is to this end that the Aztec Warriors engage in the defence of Stalingrad - to begin the colonisation of Europe as a new source of sacrifices to the Empire. Zenzontli is a dealer in European slaves. Does Foster intend to suggest that it doesn't matter who won, that capitalism and empire inevitably lead to corruption, colonialism and exploitation?

I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I’ve taken from the book, but I’m very glad I read it. If you’re interested in a collection of more coherent comments, read this.

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