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To read Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria is to be immersed in glorious prose that ripples and flows as it presents a rich and complex world, itself filled with words and the love of books and an appreciation of the power of words and narrative and language and myth, and their role in creating, preserving and altering culture.

It is into this world of languages and changing cultures that the protagonist, Jevek of Tyom, comes, first through the Olondrian books given to him by his tutor, which make him a stranger in his own country as he absorbs the visions of Olondria he finds in those books, and again through his voyage, as a stranger and a merchant taking over his father's business, to Olondria itself.

And it is as a stranger in Olondria, as one who longs to enter into a culture not his own, even as he learns that his books have not prepared him for Olondria as it is, that he learns through words, through hardship, through violence and through mystery to know who he is, to value his own people's ways and words and to bring them a written language of their own, to preserve their own stories.

Reviewer Nic Clarke has written about this so much better than I can:

"In Stranger, Samatar is keenly interested in the connections between language, culture, knowledge, and the self: how language functions as a marker and shaper of self- and communal identity; how facility with language, both oral and written, confers confidence, status and power; how words turned into text can convey emotion and meaning across time and cultural boundaries; and the possibilities of cultural contact that language opens up, or (when misunderstood or misused) closes down. Whether that contact is constructive or destructive, and for whom, is another matter, of course, and one with which Stranger also deals." [1]

A Stranger in Olondria is a beautiful, thoughtful, magical book, and I cannot praise it highly enough.


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Some very good stories here, at least one will likely end up on my Hugo nominations list.

"Those," by Sofia Samatar, March 2015, Uncanny Magazine

A lyrical, haunting, many-layered story with distinct contrapuntal echoes of The Heart of Darkness, Heningen and the Ants, and other colonial literature. An aging man, once part of the Belgian colonial project in the Congo, tells his daughter stories about his life on the plantation, careless of how they sound to her ears.

"Steve Rogers: PR Disaster," ideopathicsmile, April 23, 2015, Rearranging The Alphabet (tumblr blog)

Yes, fanfic counts. When it's as flat-out funny and as pertinent to my interests as this, anyway. All-American war hero Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America, was brought forward to our time. The hero game hasn't changed much, but as far as social issues are concerned, he's got a lot of catching-up to do. But not in the way you might think. Our boy Steve, it seems, was quite a progressive back in the Depression days. And it's driving his publicist up the wall trying to keep him in line.

"Monkey King, Faerie Queen," Zen Cho, Spring 2015, Kaleidotrope

Another very funny short story, in which Sun Wukong, the Monkey King from classical Chinese literature and folktales, finds himself in the European land of the Fae, and has a right royal dust-up with the Faerie Queen. This entertaining fusion of two different and ancient cultural mythos makes for a pleasant read.

"Milagroso," Isabel Yap, August 12, 2015,

In a future where "natural" food no longer exists, a miracle during a religious festival in The Philippines calls the value of the synthetic substitutions into question. To me, this reads as a serious critique of the whole issue of food engineering, the loss of native strains, and the way that our food is industrially grown and processed. A vividly written story that evokes both an artificial and corporatised future and a rich past that delights the senses.

"Ambiguity Machines: An Examination," Vandana Singh, April 29, 2015,

This novelette left me breathless, in awe. Framed as an examination paper on the topic of machines that may or may not be possible, the text is a theoretical discourse on the permeability of boundaries that we all believe immutable - time, space, reality, sentience, the self - limned in stunning, lyrical prose. Three vignettes, each telling the story of human experience with a technology that bends the laws of what we think is possible - ambiguity machines - are presented for the consideration of the student-candidate. A theoretical physicist by trade, Singh embeds the most transcendent thoughts about the physical nature of reality into an exploration of the power of imaginative creation.

"Elephants and Corpses," Kameron Hurley, May 13, 2015,

Hurley's work is often grim, and this story is no exception. Nev is a body-jumper. He survives by inhabiting and reanimating corpses. His companion and body-manager Tera can talk to the dead. When they buy a reasonably fresh body, they stumble into more than they can handle, and it will take all of Nev and Tera's unusual abilities to survive. Hurley adds depth to the story by considering the emotional complexities of living on as a succession of corpses while those around you die.

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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,

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

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,

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

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

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

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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