This is a short-term project of my reviews and surveys of science fiction written by women. I am no longer actively updating it, although I may occasionally add a new piece if the spirit moves me. If you like my writing, please visit shannonturlington.com, which is regularly updated.

All content published here is copyright Shannon Turlington and may not be reproduced without permission. Contact me if you would like to republish an essay or hire me for new writing: shannon.turlington @ gmail.com

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A Comparison: The Book of Phoenix and Who Fears Death

Here is my original review of Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor; 2010). This review includes spoilers for both Who Fears Death and its prequel, The Book of Phoenix (Okorafor; 2015).

9780756410193_TheBookof_Phoenix_JK.inddAs a prequel to Who Fears Death, it is impossible not to compare these two books. I think that Who Fears Death was much more successful than The Book of Phoenix on several levels. The Book of Phoenix tells the story of the apocalyptic event that created the far future world of Who Fears Death, instigated by a genetically engineered immortal weapon named Phoenix.

Who Fears Death sits clearly in the realm of fantasy/magical realism. This genre choice works well for the style of story, which incorporates African myth and folklore. The Book of Phoenix is more a science fiction story–or to be accurate, it employs the tropes of superhero comics with a nod to SF. Yet the style is deliberately that of oral storytelling, presumably drawn from African traditions (given the themes), with a tendency toward repetition, circling around events, and some unnecessary tangents. I didn’t think these two choices meshed at all well together. I had several unanswered questions regarding the more science fictional aspects of the plot that probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much in a more fantastic setting.

Both stories center around a female character with incredible powers who is also incredibly angry. Who Fears Death did not feel the need to justify or soften its heroine’s anger, who is reacting to the sexist and racist oppression she experiences. The Book of Phoenix focuses on racial oppression, particularly the exploitation of African peoples by the West, and this theme is very powerful. Unlike Who Fears Death, though, it has no corresponding feminist message. Toward the end, as Phoenix is wreaking her vengeance, there is a very disturbing paragraph, where Phoenix notes that as a woman, she is unable to control her anger or channel it properly. If she were a man, she would have been a better superhero, she seems to say. This observation comes out of nowhere and is difficult to explain. Are we supposed to believe that this is simply Phoenix’s naivete talking? If so, it’s clumsily handled and, I think, stands in opposition to the theme I enjoyed most in Who Fears Death, which was the power and rightness of women’s anger.

I am not very familiar with African myths beyond the basics of Yoruba, so I can’t really comment on these themes in either books, although I am certain that Okorafor has knowledgeably incorporated myth into both. However, it’s hard to miss the biblical references. If Who Fears Death can be seen as an upending of the Christ story, with an angry and vengeful Christ figure at its center, then The Book of Phoenix is clearly Old Testament, with all its falls: the fall of the tower, the fall of angels, the fall of man, culminating in a waterless flood, the scorching of the Earth with fire. Is Phoenix then a Lucifer figure, or is this another upending? She sees herself as a villain, not a heroine, and she seems to root her villainy in her femaleness (Eve in the garden). Are we supposed to condemn her then? Given the sheer evil of the forces she was up against, I don’t want to condemn her. I just don’t feel like Okorafor gives us enough to really understand what she is trying to say with this book. It’s frustrating.

That’s how I mainly felt upon finishing: frustrated. I was looking forward to having some of the unanswered questions in Who Fears Death answered. I don’t feel they really were. I still don’t understand how Phoenix’s story–which becomes the basis of the Great Book, or the religious text that everyone abides by in Who Fears Death–is twisted to justify the oppression and enslavement of black Africans by Arabic Africans. I didn’t feel a true continuity between these two stories. I think I would have been better off letting Who Fears Death stand alone.

Winter Well: Speculative Novellas About Older Women

ww-coverWinter Well, edited by Kay T. Holt (2013), is a collection of four novellas that certainly run the gamut of genres that might be categorized as “speculative fiction.” The first, “To the Edges” by M. Fenn, is set in an apocalyptic near future United States undergoing social collapse. Next is “Copper” by Minerva Zimmerman, a futuristic tech noir detective story. “This Other World” by Anna Caro is more straightforward social science fiction, set on an alien planet. The final offering, “The Second Wife” by Marissa James, is straight-up fantasy.

What ties these four novellas together is that the protagonist in each is an older woman going through a time of personal change as well as societal upheaval. In each story, the main character must set aside her previous life and discover a reservoir of inner strength and resolve to move forward into an unknown future. The strongly related themes and central narrative voices of each novella tie together these four very different offerings into an interesting, thought-provoking collection of feminist speculative fiction.

While clearly these are new writers just finding their voices, all four of these novellas were absorbing reads with only some rough edges showing. My favorite was the second offering, “Copper,” about a tech-savvy insurance investigator trying to locate her own hijacked uterus; I would definitely read more novels by that author. The third offering, about a revolt on an alien planet, reminded me strongly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing and was probably the most polished of the four. The other two novellas didn’t stand out as much in my mind, but definitely showed promise.

I would recommend this unique collection to any reader who is interested in science fiction by women and about women.

First Impressions: Boneshaker

These are my first impressions after reading Boneshaker (Cherie Priest; 2009) in January 2010. Slight spoilers.
Cover_of_BoneshakerBoneshaker
is a steampunk novel set in an alternate Seattle in the 1880s. Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction set in an era where steam power is widely used. Science fiction elements include technological inventions that never actually existed or that were invented early (such as steam-powered computers), as well as alternate-history speculations that would allow such innovations to happen. In Boneshaker, Priest has also thrown zombies into the mix, but with a scientific, rather than a supernatural, cause. To add to the effect, the book is printed in brown ink, giving it an antiquated look that is surprisingly easy on the reader’s eyes.

Before the story begins, an excerpt from a book called Unlikely Episodes in Western History sets the stage. The setting is a slightly altered America, where the Civil War stretched on and on, and the Gold Rush boomed early, turning Seattle into a bustling mining town by 1879. With the Gold Rush moving farther north, the Russians held a competition to develop a machine that could mine gold from underneath ice. Leviticus Blue, a Seattle inventor, came up with a monstrous machine called the Boneshaker, but when he started it up, something went wrong and it tore a destructive tunnel underneath downtown. This released a trapped gas, later christened the Blight, that turned those who breathed it into “rotters” — zombies, effectively. Seattle had to be evacuated and a massive wall erected around downtown, keeping in both the Blight and the rotters.

Fifteen years later, Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes, is eking out a living on Seattle’s Outskirts. She discovers that her teenage son, Zeke, has sneaked inside the Wall to find evidence that might exonerate his father. After an earthquake destroys Zeke’s one way out, Briar sets out to rescue him. And thus begins an adventure that includes a dirigible crash, several zombie chases, and a showdown with a mad genius named Dr. Minnericht, who controls the illegal trade in a drug made from the Blight from within the city Wall.

Priest has vividly and effectively created her steampunk world of walled-off Seattle, where the air is yellow and obscured by the heavy gas, a warren of tunnels and jerry-rigged elevators crisscross the city, and huge dirigibles carrying air pirates float silently overhead. The remaining human inhabitants of the city move through this dreamlike world wearing gas masks, some of them almost post-human in their elaborate breathing apparatuses or sporting mechanized arms. Dr. Minnericht is the most striking and least human of them all, outfitted in a skull-like gas mask of pipes and valves, with glowing blue lenses for eyes, lording it over the city from an opulently furnished buried train station.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite measure up to the intricate world that Priest has imagined. A straightforward adventure story, it doesn’t have much to say beyond that in terms of a larger theme or message. Still, it is a fun story that would probably make a great movie (if the actors didn’t have to cover their faces with gas masks the whole time).

Boneshaker is the first novel set in the fictional world called the Clockwork Century by Priest. Priest has previously published a trilogy of Southern Gothic horror novels.

First Impressions: The Snow Queen

These are my first impressions after reading The Snow Queen (Joan D. Vinge; 1980) in May 2011. Some spoilers.

9175EUqkY+LThe Snow Queen is an epic story set on a distant planet, about the fall of one queen and the rise of another. The novel is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson and tackles such weighty themes as immortality and the power of knowledge.

The strength of this novel lies in its world building. The planet of Tiamat is a fully realized world, an ocean-covered planet orbiting twin suns. Two tribes live there: the sea-going, island-dwelling Summers, characterized by a fear of technology and a superstitious worship of their sea goddess, the Lady; and the Winters, who live in the Northern regions and the shell-shaped city of Carbuncle, embrace technology and freely trade with the Offworlders.

Tiamat’s culture and history are shaped by the oddities of its planetary and solar system orbits. Every 150 years, it moves closest to one of its suns, bringing a long summer to the planet. This signals a complete power shift, as the Summers move north from the equatorial regions and the Snow Queen abdicates to the Summer Queen. In fact, the Snow Queen and her consort are sacrificed to the sea in a paganistic ritual following a multi-day festival similar to Carnivale or Mardi Gras.

During the same period, the planet orbits close to and then away from a black hole that enables interstellar travel to other planets in an empire called the Hegemony. While Tiamat is close to the black hole, the Hegemony maintains a presence there, sharing technology with the ruling Winters. When the planet starts to orbit away, the Offworlders must leave, and they destroy all technology before they go to keep Tiamat from advancing too much without their influence and perhaps declaring independence. The Offworlders’ interest in Tiamat comes down to the planet’s one valuable asset: immortal sea creatures called Mers. The Mers’ blood, called the Water of Life, can be harvested to provide ever-lasting youth.

The Snow Queen takes place at the cusp of this great Change. The 150-year-old Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has been scheming to maintain her power after the Summers take over. Her plan involves cloning herself, producing her Summer twin, Moon. But even though the two look alike, they are diametric opposites in personality. Arienrhod is self-absorbed and power-hungry, emotionless in her extreme age, a manipulator of everyone she meets. Her young twin Moon is compassionate and empathetic, someone who inspires adulation and devotion in everyone she comes across.

Moon has become a sibyl, a prophetess who can answer any question. Through this power she taps into an ancient network of knowledge and discovers the true significance of the Mers and why they must be protected. This prompts her to compete for the mask of the Summer Queen and the power to, as she puts it, change the Change.

Moon and Arienrhod are both in love with Moon’s cousin, Sparks. His character is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, because it seems implausible that these two strong women would go to such lengths for him. Sparks is narcissistic, petulant, and tends to make rash decisions or sulk when things don’t go his way. His character doesn’t improve or change much over the course of the story. He commits atrocious crimes, witnessed by Moon, who still wants to be with him even when much more attractive options are available to her.

This is a long novel that probably could have been a good deal shorter, but there is enough action and interesting dynamics to keep the reader involved. In fact, I would like to know more — about the ruling planet of Kharamough, for instance, and its rigid class structure, which we visit only briefly. Clearly, the novel is setting up for a sequel, since many conflicts are left open-ended and the resolution is not quite satisfying as a result.

The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award in 1981. The sequel, The Summer Queen, was published in 1991, and a third novel in the trilogy, Tangled Up in Blue, was published in 2000. Vinge also published a novella, World’s End (1984), set in the same universe.

First Impressions: The Unit

These are my first impressions after reading The Unit (Ninni Holmqvist; 2006) in May 2009. Slight spoilers.

7182963In The Unit, Holmqvist takes us into a dystopian world that is more frightening because it seems so familiar. In this near-future or alternative society (it is never clear which), people who are deemed “dispensable” are confined to the unit, a dreamlike world where they have no wants unmet, while they are efficiently employed as subjects of dangerous experiments and their organs systematically harvested for the benefit of the “needed.” To not have children is the primary means of becoming dispensable, although they seem to be drawn from the ranks of artists, writers, and others who cannot conform to middlebrow society for one reason or another.

Dorritt is such a person. Before coming to the unit, her closest relationship was with her dog. But once there, she experiences for the first time true friendship, love, and acceptance for who she is, which makes her quiet, detached descriptions of the emotional and physical tortures that her friends and, ultimately, she suffers there all the more horrifying.

The power of The Unit is its subtlety. We never really know how a supposedly democratic society instituted this practice of harvesting their fellow citizens, or why the people tolerate it, although we are given hints. As the story progresses, we learn that there are fewer and fewer dispensable people, so that the definition of who is unneeded must be expanded to keep up the supply of organs and test subjects. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the unit seem unaccountably resigned to their fates, but as Dorritt tells her story, we almost come to understand why — which makes it all the more terrifying.

The Unit was originally published in Sweden and was translated into English by Marlaine Delargy.

The Bleak Futures of Octavia Butler

Books discussed in this essay: Parable of the Sower (1993); Parable of the Talents (1998); Lilith’s Brood (2000); Fledgling (2005); Seed to Harvest (2007). Some spoilers.

Octavia Butler had a bleak outlook on the future of humanity, judging by her forward-looking science fiction novels. The dystopias portrayed in Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and Clay’s Ark (part of the Patternist series) depict a complete regression of civilization and are marked by senseless violence and brutality. In the Xenogenesis series, humanity has been all but wiped out in a global nuclear war.

When Butler looked ahead, she seemed to see only one thing that could save us: a transcendence beyond our brutal human natures. What we would become in these visions may no longer resemble human beings–and Butler seemed ambivalent about this–but it might offer the only hope for our salvation.

1415945710943494543Each of these series posits such a transformation. In the Xenogenesis series (collected in the omnibus edition Lilith’s Brood), aliens arrive to save us. The story starts 250 years after a devastating nuclear war almost wipes out all human life. The few survivors have been picked up by an alien spacecraft and kept in stasis while the aliens, the Oankali, study them. Lilith is one of the first be awakened and integrated into an Oankali family. The Oankali train her to awaken others, introduce them to their new reality and their alien hosts, and reveal the Oankali’s plan: to produce Oankali-human offspring, a brand-new hybrid species.

The Oankali are genetic engineers and reproduce by genetic manipulation. They survive by traveling through space and finding species with promising genetic traits to mate with, such as humans. However, this means humans can no longer reproduces with one another; the Oankalis have disabled their fertility. Of course, there is rebellion.

Through the series, the humans–living in primitive conditions on Earth–are portrayed as without hope, a species that, if allowed to reproduce, would attempt to destroy itself again within a few generations. Humans are hierarchical and competitive, unlike the Oankali. As individuals, they can be intelligent and compassionate. But as a group, they are violent, destructive, and territorial. Even when the aliens allow some humans to start a new colony on Mars and have children, the Oankali hold out no hope for their future. The only hope seems to be that a greater power from the outside will find us and transform us into a better people than we can ever hope to be on our own. We are unable to cure ourselves, doomed by our own biology to always be fighting and murdering one another.0_8874b_aebc23c8_orig

In the Patternist series (collected in the omnibus edition Seed to Harvest), some characters are immortals who can transfer from body to body to avoid death. They eventually evolve into a network of telepaths. Other people are infected by alien lifeforms. Thus, humans take two distinct evolutionary paths. In the last book, both groups have evolved into a nearly unrecognizable state; humans, as we think of ourselves, have ceased to exist.

18a9vudhjqugzjpgIn the Parable series, the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is an empath. Despite the grim and harrowing dystopia depicted in these two novels, this is probably the most hopeful of Butler’s series. The character of Lauren embodies the potential of humanity to employ the previously unlocked powers of the mind and emotions to become something better than what we are. She foresees moving out into space and sowing humanity like seeds on other planets as the way to survive, and she has the leadership qualities to realize that dream. Lauren preaches that “God is change,” but instead of fighting change or surrendering to it, she advocates recognizing it and using change to make these far-reaching goals a reality. Here, Butler is proposing that we can evolve out of our tendency to kill, brutalize, and enslave one another–if we can survive long enough.

Even in Fledgling, Butler’s last novel (which is set in present day), she posits an evolved type of human living among us. In this case, they are vampires, but unlike any other vampires in fiction. They form symbiotic relationships with humans, positing an entirely new way of living together.

Throughout her fiction, Butler seems unable to conceptualize human beings as we currently are surviving. Whether it’s intervention from an extraterrestrial species or developing traits that allow us to evolve beyond our humanity, we have to become something unrecognizable in order to survive. Then the question becomes: if that is the requirement, did humans really survive? Or are we fated to self-immolate? When I read the news, I often feel that Butler was sharing a truth with this observation–but I don’t want it to be true. I want humans to be capable of collectively overcoming whatever impulse there is inside us that causes us to want to destroy one another. I want us to save ourselves, as ourselves, not look to some godlike being to save us or have to transcend our humanity to evolve beyond our self-destructive impulses.

Octavia_Butler-02

First Impressions: Who Fears Death

These are my first impressions after reading Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor; 2010) in March 2016. Many spoilers.

220px-WhoFearsDeathbookOnyesonwu is the mixed-race daughter of a rape with hair and skin the color of sand, despised by both her mother’s and father’s people, who discovers that she possesses great magical powers: shapeshifting, resurrection of the dead, and the ability to transport herself into an alternate reality.

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, so far in the future that the people have forgotten their history and only know what is written in the Great Book, a religious text all children have to study. Only a few vestiges of modern civilization remain–some computers and handheld electronic devices, as well as water capture stations that enable people to live in the desert. (At one point, Onyesonwu and her companions take shelter from a storm in a cave where they discover a mound of dead computers and other electronics, which frightens them for unspecified reasons, hinting at an ingrained fear of the trappings of our modern civilization.)

Onyesonwu’s mother’s people, black Africans called the Okeke, have been murdered, subjugated, and enslaved by Arabic Africans called the Nuru, with the blessing of the Great Book. White people seem completely unknown to either race–perhaps mostly killed off in whatever apocalypse happened?–and Onyesonwu only meets one white character, a sorcerer-mentor whose skin color completely mystifies her. Another race of nomadic red people live in the desert in the center of a gigantic sandstorm; they practice magic routinely and seem to have no modern counterparts.

Onyesonwu’s mother was brutally raped and impregnated by a Nuru soldier. Onyesonwu discovers later that her biological father is a sorcerer who will lead a genocide of the Okeke. She undergoes female genital circumcision at the age of 11, believing that this will make her family more accepted in her village. This causes her to involuntarily transport into an alternate plane, where she attracts her father’s attention. Onyesonwu undergoes training in the magic arts so that she can protect herself from him, and eventually learns that she is prophesied to defeat the genocide.

Sidenote from Wikipedia: The novel was inspired in part by Emily Wax’s 2004 Washington Post article “We Want to Make a Light Baby,” which discussed the use of weaponized rape by Arab militiamen against Black African women in the Darfur conflict. According to Wax: “The victims and others said the rapes seemed to be a systematic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.” Okorafor wrote that this article “created the passageway through which Onyesonwu slipped through my world.”

Onyesonwu is an angry young woman. She is angry at the enslavement of the Okeke based solely on their race, and angry at the Okeke for subjugating themselves to slavery. She is angry at the treatment she and her lover Mwita receive because they are mixed-race outcasts, or Ewu. She is angry at the treatment of women by everyone–rape, prostitution, enforced celibacy of unmarried women via the FGC rite, the refusal of the village sorcerer Aro to take her on as a student at first just because she is female.

Onyesonwu’s story is a subversion of the Christ story. She is prophesied to free her people from enslavement, and she knows that she will have to sacrifice herself as a result. She embarks on her own hero’s journey to confront her father, taking her lover and best friends with her as traveling companions. She enacts several miracles along the way, but these are miracles of vengeance and wrath, not healing and teaching. She blinds an entire village. In another village, she makes all the men disappear and impregnates all the women. She is stoned to death as she has foreseen, but once her body is dug up and reburied, she is able to avoid her execution and escapes from the desert land to a distant paradise.

Because of her anger, Onyesonwu is not an easy savior to admire or like. Not only does she lose her temper frequently and unleash her great powers on everyone around her, but she also is impatient and snappish with her friends and often elects to run away instead of confront conflict. While she comes to regret some of her decisions, such as undergoing the circumcision rite, she doesn’t show remorse for many of her deeds. Her anger is part of her, and justified. Probably she would be unable to accomplish what she does without it.

But Onyesonwu’s anger–women’s anger–often makes us uncomfortable, and we are unused to seeing it as the focus of literature. That, and many other things, can make this a difficult book to read. Onyesonwu turns her critical eye on everyone around her. No one is an innocent in this world–except perhaps the mysterious red tribe, where Onyesonwu experiences a period of learning, growth, and relative tranquility. This book is steeped in magic, unfamiliar cultural references, and an ambiguous history. Sometimes we have to read between the lines; other times, we have to let events flow without questioning the logic too closely. Opening ourselves up to this story may be difficult, but the experience is powerful and rewarding.