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Some time ago, I read in André Carrington's Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction a critical analysis of Steven Barnes' novelisation of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars." In that episode, Avery Brooks and the other members of the cast appear as Americans living in the mid-20th century. Brooks is Benny Russell, a writer for a science fiction pulp magazine; the other actors play the roles of his colleagues at the magazine, and his acquaintances. The episode deals openly with racial issues, including race within the world of science fiction - the unlikeliness of a person like Benny Russell being seen as a writer of sf, the impossibility of him selling a story in which he imagines a black commander of a starbase in a distant future.

Carrington's description of Barnes' reworking of the episode intrigued me, and I made a note to myself to obtain a copy of the book to read.

It's an interesting piece of multiple recursion - a black science fiction writer retelling the story of an episode of a science fiction show featuring a black starbase commander - an episode in which the actor portraying that commander is also playing the role of a black science fiction writer telling the story of a black starbase commander. And so it had to be, for who but a black science fiction writer could give the character of Benny Russell the bone deep experiences of being multiply othered that a black man in America who is also writer of science fiction must live through?

Barnes' text gives Benny the depth, intelligence and passion that is inherent in Avery Brooks' creation of the live character, and a past that informs his resistance to the 'acceptable' roles and behaviours for black men in the 1950s. There's a flashback in the novel, to Benny's youth. It's 1939, and he and a few other kids from the Harlem youth centre he hangs out at have gone on a field trip to the World's Fair. The theme for that exposition was "the world of tomorrow" and they are exploring the exhibits in the General Motors Futurama building. Benny is excited by much of what he sees, but it's excitement with a bitter core: "Never in his life had he experienced anything like that, and only one thing could conceivably spoil the experience for him: Every last one of the thousands of little human beings shopping, working, playing, worshipping and living in the cities of the future had been white."

This, of course, presages the central moment of the script. Benny Russell, having written the story of Benjamin Sisko, star base commander, black man in a future where black men do exist, where humans of all races and aliens can live together, where the daily humiliations experienced by men of colour are truly a thing of the past, has his vision rejected because his publisher can't print a story where a black man is a captain. No one will buy it, no one will believe it.

It was a powerful episode, and Barnes has transformed it into a powerful novel.

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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;, September 9, 2016

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

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

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

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;, May 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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 his alternative history novel Lion's Blood, Steven Barnes gives us a world that is in many ways very similar to our own 18th century. It is a world where several strong and technologically advanced nations, sharing one continent and one religion, have embarked wholeheartedly on imperial projects in the western hemisphere, forming colonies and engaging in acts of aggression against the peoples they find there. And, like our own world in the 18th century, it is a world where the slave trade flourishes.

But in this world, Alexander the Great became Pharaoh of Egypt. Carthage, with the help of Egypt and
Abyssinia, destroyed Rome. Saul of Tarsis died in 30 AD, before taking that transformative journey to Damascus. An Islamic Africa colonised much of Europe and developed technologies such as steam power much earlier than Happened in our own world. And by the time this novel takes place, the western hemisphere has been colonised by people from the great African powers, Egypt and Abyssinia, and it is the technologically backward Gauls, Franks, and Celts, living on the fringes of the civilised, Islamic world who are the slaves.

The primary focus of the novel is the coming of age of, and growing relationship between, two young men - Aidan, a Celtic slave taken by raiders from his home and, along with his mother and sister, transported to the New World; and Kai, younger son of the Wakil Abu Ali, a government official living in Bilalistan, a colony settled by followers of an Islamic spiritual leader named Bilal. The Wakil assigns Aidan to be Kai's body servant, but over time the relationship changes as the two boys, master and slave, come to respect each other as human beings.

The novel is a multi-faceted one, examining not only the horrors of slavery, but also issues of religious diversity. Religion plays a significant role in the lives of many of the characters. Through them, Barnes explores the complexities of the Islamic faith, and shows how Kai's search for religious understanding leads him to question the injustices in his world and seek his own moral standpoint. At the same time, he envisages a Celtic-hued Christianity that developed without the influence of Saint Paul, but was influenced by the Gnostics and particularly the Gospel of Mary.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and am very sad to learn that its sequel, Zulu Heart, is out of print. I would so much like to read more about this alternate world, but until someone decides to bring it out in ebook form, I will just have to wait.


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