Writing articles for the upcoming Encyclopedia of Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy has not left me much time for this blog. So, today's update is just going to be a mini-review.
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Gaiman's American Gods could be described as a journey through literary genres, travelling through epic fantasy, horror, roadtrip, social commentary and satire among others. The novel's premise is immediately compelling: when immigrants came to America from foreign countries, they brought their old gods with them, but America is not a land where gods can flourish and so they have dwindled into obscurity. At the same time, new gods are rising in the country -- the gods of technology and media -- and are threatening to destroy the old gods completely.
Unfortunately, I am less convinced by the erratic execution. Some parts of the novel are utterly stunning in their power and their imagination -- the visit to the House on the Rock, Shadow's vigil, rank among the greatest passages of prose that I have ever read -- but others are weak and superfluous. Gaiman's stated aim was to write a long, relaxed, meandering novel, and he has achieved that goal beyond any contradiction, but some judicious editing would have made for a more elegant and readable work.
More problematically, while the old gods are fascinating and Gaiman has done an excellent job representing them as immigrant figures, the new gods are considerably less successful. The weakness in the story is that Gaiman has not seemed to understand what America's new gods are: the religious fundamentalism of the Bible Belt; the capitalism of Wall Street; the fervent patriotism post-9/11. Or, if he has understood, he hasn't had the courage to represent them, and has gone for the easier option of preaching against the evils of television and violent games. For a book about the soul of America, that is perhaps an unforgivable sin.
Similar books: Diana Wynne Jones, Eight Days of Luke; Terry Pratchett, Small Gods.
Ursula LeGuin once famously described science fiction as an Old Boys' Club. By this, she meant that it consisted primarily of white, male authors writing stories of white, male heroes who conquer and seduce their way across the universe. Fortunately, the genre has become (slightly) more diverse and representative in the intervening decades, and, since it's Blog Against Racism Week, it seems appropriate to recommend five novels and series by black authors featuring black characters in leading roles. Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents.[The series] offers an uncommonly sensitive rendering of a very common SF scenario: by 2025, global warming, pollution, racial and ethnic tensions and other ills have precipitated a worldwide decline. In the Los Angeles area, small beleaguered communities of the still-employed hide behind makeshift walls from hordes of desperate homeless scavengers and violent pyromaniac addicts known as "paints" who, with water and work growing scarcer, have become increasingly aggressive. Lauren Olamina, a young black woman, flees when the paints overrun her community, heading north with thousands of other refugees seeking a better life. Lauren suffers from 'hyperempathy," a genetic condition that causes her to experience the pain of others as viscerally as her own--a heavy liability in this future world of cruelty and hunger. But she dreams of a better world, and with her philosophy/religion, Earthseed, she hopes to found an enclave which will weather the tough times and which may one day help carry humans to the stars.
(Publishers Weekly)Samuel R. Delany, Return to Neveryon.The eleven stories, novellas, and novels in Return to Neveryon's four volumes chronicle a long-ago land on civilization's brink, perhaps in Asia or Africa, or even on the Mediterranean. Taken slave in childhood, Gorgik gains his freedom, leads a slave revolt, and becomes a minister of state, finally abolishing slavery. Ironically, however, he is sexually aroused by the iron slave collars of servitude. Does this contaminate his mission--or intensify it? Presumably elaborated from an ancient text of unknown geographical origin, the stories are sunk in translators' and commentators' introductions and appendices, forming a richly comic frame.Tananarive Due, My Soul to Keep. From the beginning, Jessica knows that David is different, but life with him seems perfect. With the birth of their daughter, life should be blissful. However, his ageless face and his perfect skin cause her investigative-reporter instincts to start questioning. Also, his lack of interest in the events of her life and work cause her to doubt the completeness of their marriage. By chance, a newspaper story Jessica writes on elder care evolves into a book proposal. Research into one of the cases leads mysteriously to David, her David. As the story develops, Jessica learns the truth about her husband and the choice he made so many centuries ago. David sold his soul for eternal life on Earth. He tells her he is not David, but Dawit, an immortal. Now he is offering her the same choice, against the doctrine of this secret society of believers.
(School Library Journal)Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring.[The novel] tells the story of Ti-Jeanne, a young woman in a near-future Toronto that's been all but abandoned by the Canadian government. Anyone who can has retreated from the chaos of the city to the relative safety of the suburbs, and those left in "the burn" must fend for themselves. Ti-Jeanne is a new mother who's trying to come to grips with her as- yet-unnamed baby and also trying to end her relationship with her drug-addict boyfriend Tony. But a passion still burns between the young lovers, and when Tony runs afoul of Rudy, the local ganglord, Ti-Jeanne convinces her grandmother Gros-Jeanne to help out. Gros-Jeanne is a Voudoun priestess, and it's clear that Ti-Jeanne has inherited some of her gifts. Although Ti-Jeanne wants nothing to do with the spirit world, she soon finds herself caught up in a battle to the death with Rudy and the mother she thought she lost long ago.
(Amazon.com)Walter Mosley, 47.The intense, personal slave narrative of 14-year-old Forty-seven becomes allegorical when a mysterious runaway slave shows up at the Corinthian Plantation. Tall John, who believes there are no masters and no slaves, and who carries a yellow carpet bag of magical healing potions and futuristic devices, is both an inspiration and an enigma. He claims he has crossed galaxies and centuries and arrived by Sun Ship on Earth in 1832 to find the one chosen to continue the fight against the evil Calash. The brutal white overseer and the cruel slave owner are disguised Calash who must be defeated. Tall John inserts himself into Forty-seven's daily life and gradually cedes to him immortality and the power, confidence, and courage to confront the Calash to break the chains of slavery. With confidence, determination, and craft, Tall John becomes Forty-seven's alter ego, challenging him and inspiring him to see beyond slavery and fight for freedom.
If you enjoy these novels, all of these authors have written many more rich and wonderful texts that deserve your attention.
You may also be interested in the following articles:
- Under strange stars: Black writers and fans explore race through science fiction
- The African American Science Fiction Character in Literature, Television, and Film
Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time
(1976) dismantles binary constructions of gender through its depiction of Mattapoisett. The most startling and controversial example of this aspect of the text is the change in reproduction that has taken place between Connie's present and the future in which Mattapoisett exists. That is, the link between intercourse and procreation has been broken; women no longer fall pregnant or give birth to children. Instead, embryos are created from a mixed stock of genetic material and grown in tanks for nine or ten months. When they are born, they are parented by three “mothers,” both male and female. (Given the mixed sexes of the parents, it is interesting that Piercy chooses to retain the word, and I shall discuss possible reasons for this decision later.) Luciente explains the reasoning behind this shift to Connie:
“It was part of women’s long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we’d never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers. Every child has three. To break the nuclear bonding.” (105)( In this regard, Piercy is drawing on the theories of Shulamith Firestone, a Marxist feminist. In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone argues that biology, specifically the sexes’ different roles in procreation, is at the “origin of [sex] dualism” and therefore is the fundamental cause of inequality between men and women (1970, 8).Collapse )
Pamela Zoline's The Heat Death of the Universe
is an unusual and provocative short story, that challenges and expands the bounds of the science fiction genre. Is it simply the story of a suburban housewife heading towards a nervous breakdown, or is it an exploration of how entropy manifests itself in the lives of individuals and the societies they inhabit? Sarah Boyle attempts to stave off chaos through her post-it notes, tools of measurement, diagrams, and housework; her species does the same through its cities, its art, its organisations, its products, and perhaps even its sciences. Despite this, chaos and disorder permeates the story, always hovering on the periphery, threatening the inevitable disintegration on which the narrative ends.Articles:
1) Confessions of a Dadaist Housewife
: A review article in the New York Times.
2) Elizabeth Dewitt, Generic Exhaustion and the "Heat Death" of Science Fiction
: Dewitt claims that the story serves as "an elegant allegory for reading Zoline's generic theory of sf, which is to sustain a generic identity that will not overdetermine the many texts seeking its shelter and, at the same time, will not give up a fruitful critical difference in the imagination of a utopian field of textual equality."
3) "The Heat Death of the Universe" by Pamela Zoline: An Appreciation by Alison Page
: A lyrical, meditative response to the short story.
4) Entropy and Society
: A discussion of entropy in Zoline's story and in Asimov's "The Last Question."
Perhaps the key debate in science-fiction studies centres around the question of definition: simply, what is science fiction? because most people have at least a common-sense understanding of what science fiction is – a genre that is based on the fantastic and imaginative, rather than the realistic, and that often involves tropes such as advanced technology and journeys through space and time. Indeed, most bookshops and libraries have separate sections for science fiction, while specialist presses exist that publish texts exclusively from the genre. Nevertheless, when it comes to specifying the exact features of the form and how it differs from similar genres such as fantasy, Frederick Andrew Lerner observes that “the Science Fiction professionals themselves – writers, historians and critics, whose careers are closely associated with Science Fiction have reached no consensus” (quoted in Poquette, 2002, 284). Similarly, Adam Roberts remarks that, "[a]ll of the many definitions offered by critics have been contradicted or modified by other critics, and it is always possible to point to texts consensually called [science fiction] that fall outside of the usual definitions." (2000, 1-2)( Much of the problem is that science fiction encompasses such a wide variety of texts, ranging from space operas to murder mysteries and from military epics to domestic drama. . .Collapse )