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Nisi Shawl's novel Everfair is a steampunk alternative history set largely in Central Africa, in the lands known in our history as the Belgian Congo. Its point of divergence from history lies in the decision of the British Fabian Society to purchase land in the Congo from Belgium's King Leopold and, in partnership with African-American missionaries, attempt to establish a sanctuary country - Everfair.

Everfair the novel has a dual purpose (aside from entertainment, of course, which it fulfill quite well). First, to present the attitudes and actions associated with colonialism and imperialism in Africa (including cultural colonisation, shown most clearly in the efforts of the black missionaries, themselves both victims and perpetrators of the colonisation of the mind), and second, to interrogate the ways in which
steampunk as a genre fails to recognise the ways in which it creates nostalgia for the colonial project. Inmy opinion, it manages both of these quite well.

The inhabitants of Everfair the nascent country - and its enemies, the violent armies and rubber harvesters of King Leopold - together form a microcosm of the conditions of colonialism. White and privileged freethinkers from the Fabian Society, Europeans seeking riches or adventure, African-American Christians seeking a home in the land of their lost roots, labourers from Macao and the Indian subcontinent, escaped black slaves from Leopold's rubber plantations, and the indigenous Afrucan peoples to whom the lands making up Everfair actually belong - it falls to these peoples to defeat the Belgians, survive the first world war, and surmount the supremacist assumptions of the white "founders" of Everfair and the African-American Christian colonists (themselves internally colonised by the experiences of abduction and slavery) they partner with.

And there are all the lovely steampunk things - aircanoes, and motorised bicycles and boats, and mechanical prosthetic limbs for all those mutilated by the Belgians, or in the battles of resistance.

I am not, generally speaking, enthralled by steampunk, but the genre worked for me here, possibly because of the context in which it is situated - not privileged Europeans or North Americans off on adventures, but oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom, their culture and their lives.

The novel covers a rather large span of time,and has quite a large cast of significant characters, which necessarily limits some detail in characterisation and plot, but I did not find that the story suffered from this in any way. An engaging read.

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Ancillary Mercy, the final volume of Ann Leckie's outstanding Imperial Radch trilogy, is a satisfying and fitting conclusion - which is ironic, considering that the story ends in many ways in media res. What makes this somewhat risky choice work perfectly is that Breq's story has always been only a small fragment of the vast web of narratives that the revisioning of a galaxy-spanning empire would require.

The thing to deal with in trying to talk about any of these books is how much is packed into them, at so many levels. The structure of the book itself is a metacommentary on the role of the individual in the history of nations, on the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about the fall of empires and the agency of heroes in those falls. No man - or being - can command the future, I once heard said. But I have also heard that pebbles can become an avalanche. (Quotes from other space operas seem appropriate to what is, after all, a story about a ship who sang.)

Realistically speaking, Breq - or any heroic protagonist - could never bring down an empire the numbers hundreds of solar systems and has lasted for thousands of years by herself, or even with the help of assorted other beings, human, AI, and alien. But she can and does upset the imperial project in a small corner of the gameboard, and what she manages to achieve (with the help of those other beings) may last long enough to spread.

And speaking of AIs, another major theme of Ancillary Mercy - indeed, of the entire trilogy, but brought to a climax here - is the agency and personhood of created intelligences such as Breq and the other ships. After three volumes of listening to Breq's inner thoughts, and observing her interactions with various other AIs, it's clear to the reader what the resolution should be, though the novel ends without a formal settlement of the argument. There's a delightful exchange, however, between Anaander and a representative of the powerful alien species the Presger, whose ultimate decision on the matter will have a significant effect on the future of the Radch - or what follows it. Anaander is arguing that the AIs cannot be Significant Beings - the Presgar term for a species whose group agency allows them to be participants in interstellar treaties and negotiations - because humans have created them. The Presgar representative responds “I’m given to understand that most, if not all, humans are built by other humans."

Ancillary Mercy also carries forward other themes from the previous volumes : the examination of the effects of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and cultural assimilation on conquered peoples, and the exploration of the meaning of justice and how it may be incorporated into daily lives as well as into overarching social movements and structures. The text provides instance after instance of incidents of subtle (and not so subtle) abuses of power, in interpersonal relationships, in class and colonial interactions, in policing of protest actions, and explores the just - and merciful - way of resolving them through Breq's eyes and developing conscience.

Then there is the whole issue of disability awareness, which had been a running theme throughout the trilogy. There is Breq, who has lost so many of her selves, her former abilities, and who is injured beyond the possibility of full recovery in the first novel when she saves Seivarden's life (she lives with constant pain in one leg from that point on) and who in the third volume is once more injured and spends signficant tine dealing with a temporary prosthetic. There is Seivarden, struggling with drug addiction. And there is Tisarwat, the survivor of a shattering mental trauma, who requires medication to function effectively.

These disability issues are themselves a part of a larger theme of loss, recovery and adaptation - loss of self, loss of place, loss of autonomy, loss of loved ones, loss of cultural identity, loss of trust, loss of personal integrity, and on and on. And yet, most of these characters recover in some fashion and find ways to move on, always bearing the marks of loss but learning ways to cope, to function, and perhaps, from time to time, to transcend.

And of course, there is the choice to avoid gender distinction. When I consider how the lack of gender has influenced my interpretation of the work, I'm reminded of some of the analysis that's been done around the topic of cisgendered heterosexual women who write and read both romance and porn based on same-sex relationships between men. The theory argues that this enables women to explore the emotional dynamics of a relationship without gendered power differentials. That, in a way, is what the lack of gendering in these books has done for me - it makes it possible to consider all these themes - agency, personhood, loss and coping, just and merciful action in personal and public spheres - as human issues, not gendered ones, to see the commonalities in how we as humans do, and could, respond.

And of course, it's a space opera. It's exciting, engaging, entertaining storytelling at its best. There's intrigue, and action, and military encounters and political entanglements and danger and heroism and all that great story material, well organised and presented. There's heroes and villains and all sorts of in-between folks, all multi-faceted and fully realised characters. There's danger, and humour, and tragedy, and triumph, and duty, and hope and even love. Quite simply, there's all you could really want, and it's done very, very well.

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Having won the Hugo for Best Novel last year with the first volune of the Imperial Radch trilogy Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie has been nominated in the same category this year for the second volune of the trilogy, Ancillary Sword. A deeply engrossing cross between space opera and spy/intrigue thriller, with a sophisticated exploration of the underlying themes of identity, gender and imperialism, both of these novels are suberb reading.

Having made a major impression with her first novel, Ann Leckie does it again in the second volume of her planned trilogy, Ancillary Sword. I continue to be impressed by her storytelling skill. In this volume, the scope collapses to a single solar system, as Breq, now captain of the Mercy of Kalr, is sent by one of the factions of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, to Athoek, a planet assimilated into the Radch Empire several centuries ago, and now the major supplier of tea to the Empire.

As Breq navigates her way through the political and social structures at work on both the planet - where wealthy tea plantation owners live in luxury while transportees from other planets work the fields as indentured servants - and on Athoek Station - where the planetary officials and representatives of all classes except the plantation workers carry out their daily tasks in a microcosm - we discover along with her the nuances of Radchaai culture even as we watch an incisive exploration of colonialism run rampant.

Breq's evolving sense of identity is also highlighted in Ancillary Sword. Linked as captain to her ship, she is at once reminded of what it was like to be a ship, at the same time that she realises most keenly that she can no longer act as a ship. It becomes increasingly clear that the person she is becoming has a profound desire for justice, but does not yet understand the state of being human well enough to consistently grasp what true justice is.

I'm very excited about the next book. I want most of all to see more of who Breq is becoming. And of course, seeing what happens to the Radch Empire.

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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. (
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 ( - 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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This anthology, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, of speculative fiction stories written from a post-colonial perspective is well worth reading, if at times acutely uncomfortable for the member of a colonising culture who is thoughtfully reading them.

There is a great deal of unquestioned colonialist thinking in science fiction. The literature of future space exploration, particularly as written by British and American writers, is very much a literature of humans (usually male, usually white) expanding throughout first the solar system, then the galaxy, sometimes throughout the universe, taking charge of planets that are either uninhabited, or peopled with Others either too primitive or too decadent to resist, or otherwise unfit to retain soveriegnty. It's a literature of colonisation and exploitation, occasionally leavened by the insights contained in such critiques of this vision as Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest.

These stories make us look at this narrative from the other side, for the perspective of the colonised snd exploited and othered. As Aliette de Bodard writes in her Preface:
They are the voices of the invaded; of the colonized; of the erased and the oppressed; of those whom others would make into aliens and blithely ignore or conquer or enlighten.
A brief concluding essay by Ekaterina Sedia summarises the recurrent themes of these stories far better than I could. Speaking to the importance and meaning of narratives such as those collected in this volume, she writes:
We find ourselves rebelling against the lies and the dominant narratives fed into our collective psyche, Clockwork Orange-style, by Hollywood’s dream factory—a truly terrifying notion, if you think about it for a bit. We find ourselves looking for ways to escape, but realizing, time and time again, that the post-colonial world is still rife with colonial injustice and oppression. And yet, slowly, slowly, we are finding voices to tell our stories, to reclaim what has been lost of history. These broken, half-forgotten histories and dreams will never be restored to their original form, and part of living in the post-colonial world is making peace with that. Because we can still create the future, and try to hope that it will be treated better than our past. The writers in this book are taking a step in that direction—because the frontier that they see is one not in space but in time, a time when all voices are heard and all stories are listened to, when no history is erased, no matter how small or inconvenient. We see a different frontier—and I hope that this book let you glimpse it as well.

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In The Rape of the Nile, Brian Fagan tells the story of centuries of theft and destruction of priceless artefacts and archeological sites, largely by foreign invaders and adventurers, but also by Egyptians themselves. The catalogue of loss is a long one, and includes Roman conquerers, medieval adventurers, Napoleonic soldiers and historians, British entrepreneurs and archeologists - all of whom felt that the treasures of the ancient land of Egypt were theirs for the taking.
During the past two thousand years Ancient Egypt has effectively been destroyed, both by the Egyptians themselves and by a host of foreigners, many of them arriving in the Nile Valley in the name of science and nationalism. The loss to archaeology is incalculable, that to Egyptian history even more staggering. As a result of the looting and pillage of generations of irresponsible visitors, the artifacts and artistic achievements of the Ancient Egyptians are scattered all over the globe, some of the most beautiful and spectacular of them stored or displayed thousands of miles from the Nile.
Fagan's detailed accounting of the discoveries and wholesale removals of the cultural wealth of an entire civilisation - often in more recent times under the paternalistic colonial argument that Western institutions can take better care of Egypt's heritage than Egyptians can - is valuable both as a record of the development of Egyptology and as a testament to the necessity of cultural sensitivity on the part of archeologists, and cultural preservation on the part of countries such as Egypt whose history has been turned into a tourist bazaar.

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It's not often that you run into a work of fiction that makes you sit back on your heels and examine just how deeply you have bought into racist and colonialist narratives about an entire continent, but that's exactly what Okorafor's Lagoon did for me.

Lagoon is a narrative centred around first contact with a powerful, and very diferent, but at least potentially peaceful and beneficial alien species that has arrived on Earth. It is set, not in the standard European or North American metropolis, but in the Nigerian city of Lagos, which is built around a lagoon - where the alien vessel lands. The aliens, it turns out, are shapeshifters, with a twist - they have the science (so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic) to change the shapes and substance of other beings and objects as well as their own. As the narrative unfolds, we follow the effects that the aliens - in particular their most visible ambassador, who adopts the form of an african woman and the name Ayodele - and their actions have on the city of Lagos and the people who give it life and vitality.

Three humans - Adaora, a marine scientist in a difficult marriage, Anthony Dey Craze, a Ghanian rap star, and Agu, a soldier in trouble after trying to prevent his comrades from committing a brutal rape - are drawn, even chosen, to be Ayodele's guides both in learning about human beings and in reaching the Nigerian President, sick and self-exiled to Saudi Arabia, defeated in spirit by his inability to deal with the problems facing his country.

And here is where my internalized colonialist narrative started screwing with my reading of the novel. A lot of bad shit goes down. Rabid religious leaders promote fear and loathing of the "witches" from space, multiple factions from criminal to government try to capture, co-opt or kill Ayodele, for money, for research, for trying to get alien support for their issues, for fear.... The list goes on. The responses are often fearful, even violent, and undeniably reveal many very real cultural, social, economic and political issues in Nigeria that need addressing. But because the universal human responses of fear, greed, self-interest, desire for power, are here filtered through an unfamiliar culture and at times a pidgin language, I found myself going to that "poor, undeveloped Africa" headspace that the colonialist narrative encourages.

And then I thought to myself - if this were set in New York or London, if the very same things happened only with white characters speaking standard English or recognisable British or American dialects (Bronx, Cockney), would I think any of these reactions improbable? And I had to say that I wouldn't. From the dying politician who failed to eradicate corruption in his government to the mysogynist priest who thinks aliens and strong-willed women are equally agents of Evil, to the street thugs who think having a captive alien who can create gold is their way to wealth and power - every single fearful or violent act that Okorafor has happen in Lagos could happen in London or New York or Toronto. That made me stop and think about a good many things, and I'd love this book for that alone.

But it's also a great story, about some people finding and reveling in their hidden strengths and differences, about new beginnings, about the irrepressibility of life, about the need to see all life on this planet as part of a web of creation. It's about kicking colonialist and imperialist remnants out of your brain and your life and - whether you happen to be an oppressed person or a colonised country - finding your own self and you own way of life. It's also about the act of creating narrative (which feeds into and is fed by many of the other themes). Okorafor uses elements of magic realism and African myth/religion to underscore this, especially in the segments when the voice of a trickster/narrator speaks directly to the readers. It speaks to many things, in many voices, on many levels.
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I did not read much non-fiction in 2010.What I did read, I found very interesting.

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest

Shiva is an environmental activist and eco-feminist who writes most powerfully on the ways in which the global agribusiness project is negatively affecting the land, the people and the culture

Daniel Radosh, Rapture Ready

Fascinating look at the "rapture" culture among various fundamentalist Christian groups in the U.S.

Barbara Ehrenreich, This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation

Ehrenreich as always delivers provocative insights into the American social, political and economic zeitgeist.

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Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said, edited by Gauri Viswanathan

This is a fascinating collection of 19 interviews with Edward W Said, conducted between 1976 and 2000 and published in a variety of scholarly and other venues. Through these interviews, it is possible to follow the development of Said’s scholarship and his political activism, as they illuminate the range, penetration and passions in Said’s intellectual and public life.

Editor Gavri Viswanathan puts it best in her introduction:
The interviews Said gave over the past three decades boldly announce that neither his own books and essays nor those written about him have the last word. The first thing to note is not only th number of interviews Said has given, both to print and broadcast media, but also the number of locations in which they took place, spanning Asia and the Middle East as well as Europe and the United States. They confirm his presence on the world stage as one of the most forceful public intellectuals of our time, a man who evokes interest in the general public for his passionate humanism, his cultivation and erudition, his provocative views and his unswerving commitment to the cause of Palestinian self-determination... Together, [these interviews] reveal a ceaselessly roving mind returning to earlier ideas in his books and novels and engaging with them anew. One measure of the fluidity and range of Said’s thought is his ability to revisit arguments made in his books and essays, not merely to defend and elaborate on them but, more important, both to mark their limits and probe their extended possibilities, especially in contexts other than those which first gave rise to them.
Said’s topics range from discourses on the development of his own work, particularly on Orientalism and post-colonial theory, to ruminations on his childhood and how it affects his sense of self in the world, to his political activism and evolving relationship with the PLO, to reflections on other authors and areas from Austen, Conrad, Naipaul and Rushdie to Derrida and Foucault.

There’s a wealth of thought in these interviews, well worth savouring.

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Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, Noam Chomsky

I would hope that Noam Chomsky would need no introduction here, but just in case, this is what Wikipedia says about him (at least today) in its article on the Politics of Noam Chomsky:
Noam Chomsky is a widely known intellectual, political activist, and critic of the foreign policy of the United States and other governments. Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist, a sympathizer of anarcho-syndicalism and is considered to be a key intellectual figure within the left wing of American politics.
In this new book, Chomsky looks at the idea of the “failed state” that has been circulating in various circles as a justification for intervention in any number of ways, including militarily, in the internal affairs of countries. Failed states are bad, the argument goes, because they do not or cannot protect their own people and may contribute to the destabilisation of other countries they interact with, and therefore it is justified for other powers to unilaterally intervene in these states to bring about the betterment of both the people’s circumstances and the global political scene. The US has repeatedly unilaterally intervened in a vast number of allegedly failed states during its history, ostensibly in support of its goal to bring democracy and freedom to the world.

Chomsky turns the magnifying glass around and examines the case for arguing that the United States of America is in fact a failed state. He begins with a reasonable definition of a failed state as one that is unable "to provide security for the population, to guarantee rights at home or abroad, or to maintain functioning (not merely formal) democratic institutions." He goes on to consider the linked concept of a “rogue nation” – one that acts in defiance of international law, and therefore may require intervention to bring it into compliance – and considers whether the US may also be considered to be a rogue state.

In arguing that the US does in fact fit the generally accepted criteria for both a failed state and a rogue nation, Chomsky details page after page of evidence and incident to demonstrate that the US does a poor job in all of these areas: providing adequately for its populace, guaranteeing their rights, maintaining a functioning democracy or obeying international law. Even a review in the New York Times concedes that “It's hard to imagine any American reading this book and not seeing his country in a new, and deeply troubling, light.”

Since I was more or less in accord with Chomsky’s thesis even before reading the book (and I should note that, while the US does a spectacularly poor job of being a functioning democratic nation and adhering to the principles of international law, similar arguments can, in my opinion, be brought against many of today’s modern economically and militarily imperialist states, my own included), I look on it personally as an excellent reference book if you’re trying to point out some of the issues that the left has with American domestic circumstances and foreign policy. But it’s a great tool to use if you want to encourage someone else to look at the questions Chomsky raises and consider their own thinking about what really defines a state as one that has failed.


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