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.

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First Impressions: Lilith’s Brood

These are my first impressions after reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler (published as an omnibus edition in 1989 and reissued in 2000) in April 2007. Some spoilers.

51Wx5H9EKBL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis novels were first compiled into one volume in 1989, but that compilation is now out of print. Grand Central Publishing has reissued the compilation in an attractive trade paperback to capture new readers. And I’m glad they did, because I probably wouldn’t have read these books otherwise.

When I finished Lilith’s Brood, I actually wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, but I thought about it a great deal, which I think is a sign of a book worth reading. The underlying theme disturbed me, partly because I didn’t find much hope in it, partly because I found myself agreeing with the series’ assessment: that humankind is fated by our own biology to destroy ourselves.

Lilith’s Brood includes three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, which comprise the Xenogenesis series. The story starts 250 years after a devastating nuclear war. The few human 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 to be awakened and to be integrated into an Oankali family. She is being trained to awaken others, to introduce them to their new reality and their alien hosts, and to 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 have no disease or old age, and they can communicate with one another at the cellular level. They survive by traveling through space and finding species with promising genetic traits to mate with, such as humans. However, this means that humans can no longer reproduce with one another; the Oankalis have disabled their fertility. Also, when the Oankali leave, they will consume the remainder of Earth’s resources for the journey.

Of course, there is rebellion. Many humans choose to live long, childless lives rather than join with the Oankali. Lilith does not, because having been integrated with an Oankali family, she has become physically dependent on them. The next two books follow the lives of two of her children, as the Oankali-human interbreeding progresses. I don’t think I would have been compelled to keep reading the second novel if it were a separate sequel; each book on its own seems somewhat incomplete.

Throughout all three novels, 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 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.

That’s what makes this series so disturbing. The only hope posited is essentially that a greater power from the outside will find us, cure all our diseases, and create with us a better people than we can ever hope to be. We are unable to cure ourselves, doomed by our own biology to always be fighting and murdering one another. I look at the news every day and feel that this is true. But I don’t want it to be true. I want humans to be capable of evolving past whatever impulse causes us to want to destroy one another. I want us to save ourselves, not look to some alien or god to save us.

But if I’m looking for that kind of resolution, I won’t find it in Lilith’s Brood. Still, I’m glad I read it. Even if I don’t ultimately agree with Butler’s conclusions, her writing made me think about and question some of my own assumptions.

Second Impressions: Beggars in Spain

These are my second impressions after rereading Beggars in Spain (Nancy Kress; 1991) in February 2014. This review is based on the novella only. Some spoilers.

5115d9ajLwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In the near future, Leisha is one of the first generation of children genetically engineered not to need sleep, and finds herself hated and feared because of the advantages that gives her.

I first read this novel long ago, and I just reread the novella it was based on to refresh my memory, so this review will focus on the novella, which is the opening section of the longer novel. I have seen this book listed on many libertarian book lists, but it is my opinion that it considers but ultimately refutes libertarian ideals, at least those ideals that we often associate with Ayn Rand.

Like most of the Sleepers, Leisha subscribes to a philosophy popularized by Kenzo Yagai, who also invented the cheap energy source that is transforming the world. In that philosophy, a person’s greatest dignity comes from being able to do what they do well, freely and without coercion, and to trade that skill with others. This is symbolized by the contract. If a person is not allowed to achieve or must operate under coercion, then that robs them of their spiritual dignity.

However, there is the problem of the so-called beggars in Spain, who have nothing to give and want what you have–and may be willing to do violence to get it. They cannot live on their own merits, and they aren’t willing to abide by the rules of civilizations. What does the world owe them? The libertarians, or Yagaiists, would argue, the world owes them nothing. Leisha feels there is something wrong with this, but it takes her a while to realize what.

The Sleepless are superior in nearly every way to the Sleepers, and that is why they come to be hated and feared. They cannot engage with the rest of the world in equal trade because they are not born equal. They come to the conclusion that their only recourse is to withdraw from society into an isolated refuge called Sanctuary. Again, Leisha does not think this is the right move.

Finally, as she and her twin sister Alice (who is not a Sleepless) rescue a sleepless child from an abusive home–and Alice basically saves everybody, much to Leisha’s surprise–she realizes the truth. This is where the refutation happens. Trade is not linear. It is more like a web. A “beggar in Spain” is not fated to permanently be a beggar; they may have something of value to give that only becomes apparent later, like Alice. Human society is an ecology, so you give what you can when you can, not knowing whether you will receive something in return now or later, or even if the person you benefit will go on to benefit someone else. However, by giving when it is needed, and not expecting something in return immediately, the whole ecology benefits–including the so-called elite.

This is where we get stuck when we consider libertarianism in the political arena today. There is often the attitude of “what’s in it for me?” The benefit may not be immediately apparent, but there is a benefit to us all. We are not individuals free-floating out there, tethered to no one, reliant only on ourselves. We are part of an ecology, and all of us are necessary parts of that ecology. Even the beggars.

First Impressions: China Mountain Zhang

These are my first impressions after reading China Mountain Zhang (Maureen F. McHugh, 1992) in June 2014.

836964In the 22nd century, when China is the dominant superpower and the US has had a socialist revolution, Zhang is trying to figure out what to do with his life.

Whenever I read futuristic science fiction written during the Cold War that assumes the Soviet Union continued as a superpower, I find myself mentally substituting “China” for Soviet Union, just to keep the story believable for me. Now here’s a book written in the ’90s that actually does posit China as the dominant superpower, and of course, it’s a lot different and more realistic than those Soviet-era books. For one thing, the United States has declined quite a lot, as well as having undergone its own socialist revolution. This version of the near future also brings in questions of race — people of Chinese ethnicity have privilege here — sexuality, and gender as well as politics.

This future is not dystopian, not really (although I’m sure many Americans would consider a socialist USA the worst thing that could ever happen). It’s far too realistic for that. The characters are all ordinary people with ordinary concerns about work, success, love, and community. I think that’s why I enjoyed this book so much–the story is told by real people with the minor concerns of real life, but it maintains a broad scope. The story begins and ends in New York City, but it travels to an Arctic research station, a rich and glittering Shanghai, even Mars.

The characters, however, are all people who don’t quite fit into this new normal. The protagonist, Zhang, is gay and half Latino (which has been obscured by genetic manipulation), who must keep both these aspects of himself secret in order to get ahead. He chafes against these restrictions and longs for community, finally choosing to do something very American: he starts his own business. Other sections of the book are told from the points of view of characters that Zhang meets peripherally. One is a Chinese woman with a medical condition that has rendered her “ugly”; once she has that corrected, she unexpectedly faces the possibly worse problems of pretty girls. Another is a loner who has finally moved to a commune on Mars in order to be left alone, but yet finds herself reluctantly helping to build her new community.

These are quiet stories, and the events that take place are not big ones. Without the technological enhancements, all of these stories could take place today. Through her speculative premise, McHugh shines a light on the persistent tensions that characterize the human species: the tension between conformity and individuality, and the desire we all have to make our own lives and to truly be ourselves.

China Mountain Zhang won the James Tiptree Award, Locus Award for best first novel, and Lambda Literary Award.

First Impressions: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

These are my first impressions after reading The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood; 2009) in October 2009. I will be discussing The Year of the Flood in future essays. Spoilers.

6080337This companion novel to Oryx and Crake relates from a different perspective the events of an engineered pandemic that wipes out humanity.

The Year of the Flood is not a sequel to Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, but rather a companion to it. It takes place at the same time and depicts the same events, with many of the same characters, but from a very different perspective. Atwood’s vision of our future is of a bleak, corporatized monoculture, where everything has been made into a commodity, and human emotions all but done away with. Guarded, gated corporate-states churn out useless genetically engineered animals and unnecessary drugs while the poor eke out an existence in the vast malls and slums of the “pleeblands.” Then, a bioengineered virus pretty much wipes out humanity overnight, leaving only a few survivors to relate the two tales. Eventually, the two storylines merge, shedding light on the abrupt end of Oryx and Crake. Although it is not strictly necessary, I believe it would help the reader understand The Year of the Flood after already having read Oryx and Crake.

The narrative alternates between the points of view of the two main characters, Toby and Ren. Each woman is telling her story post-apocalypse, first relating a little of how she managed to survive, then flashing back to the events of her life before the virus swept through. Both begin their stories as members of the anti-consumerist cult God’s Gardeners (which also appeared in Oryx and Crake), but each has to leave the group for different reasons, and their storylines separate. Each section, alternating Toby and Ren, begins with a sermon given by Adam One, the leader of God’s Gardeners, followed by a hymn commemorating one of the cult’s saint days (there is one for every day). These sermons let the reader know the fate of the group after Toby and Ren leaves and the apocalypse, which they call the “Waterless Flood,” occurs. Eventually, Toby’s and Ren’s stories catch up to the present and converge as the two separated characters come together again.

Toby and Ren are both victims of the commoditized, dysfunctional world they inhabit. They are each left without means of support after their fathers die in spectacularly unpleasant circumstances and they are abruptly on their own. They start out as victims: Toby of a psychotic rapist who continues to pursue her after her escape into God’s Gardeners; Ren of her mother’s capriciousness, until she winds up working in a sex club. After the Waterless Flood, they must each overcome their victimhood and become self-sufficient. They discover how to be themselves. In fact, the apocalypse might have been the best thing to ever happen to them, as it releases them from their societally imposed prisons.

The Year of the Flood ends much as Oryx and Crake did, with the focal characters encountering a mysterious group in the deserted forest. As in Oryx and Crake, the ending is very abrupt and a trifle unsatisfying, which leads me to believe that Atwood — although disavowing her role as a science fiction writer — is writing in the great tradition of the science fiction trilogy. If so, I eagerly await the last installment. (She was–the final installment is MaddAddam, published in 2013 and my least favorite of the trilogy.)

First Impressions: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

These are my first impressions after reading Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood; 2003) in July 2008. I will be discussing Oryx and Crake in future essays. Spoilers.

51VLtCYOxKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In a dystopian exaggeration of current American society, an insane genius crafts a solution to the problem of humanity.

The premise of this novel, and the details of the future world it depicts, are so outlandish that you must either accept them immediately or stop reading. I accepted them. I was instantly subsumed in the fascinating, disturbing world that Atwood has created.

The novel opens in a post-apocalyptic shore-side wilderness where the only survivor (presumably), Snowman, is barely surviving. He sleeps in a tree and spends his days in a hallucinatory stupor. The only breaks in the monotony are visits from children who turn out to be genetically engineered post-humans, with glowing green eyes and the ability to eat leaves.

Gradually, Snowman — whose pre-apocalypse name is Jimmy — reveals the events leading up to the disaster as he remembers them. He grew up in a corporate compound separated by walls and guards from the “pleeblands,” where the poor lived in crowded, polluted slums. His father worked for a powerful company conducting research in genetic engineering to come up with new products designed to relieve food shortages, prolong life, and preserve beauty, resulting in such bizarre creations as the pigoon and the rakunk. As a teenager, Snowman befriends a brilliant but anti-social young man who calls himself Crake, whose genius enables him to attend a prestigious and luxurious university and then get a high-profile job conducting top-secret eugenics research. Crake brings his old friend into the compound where he works, and there Snowman learns that Crake has engineered a new race of people who don’t have many of the “problems” we do.

Also there is Oryx, the beautiful, victimized woman who both men love. Yes, this is a grand story about the downfall of the human race, but it is also the oldest story of all: a love triangle.

This book kept me fascinated and disturbed until the very end. There were so many outlandish details, but at the heart it explores some fundamental issues: the unchecked power of people wielding science, without regard for consequences; the calamitous effects of environmental abuse; the potential within us to destroy ourselves; the follies of playing god. The only criticism I have is that the ending is a bit unsatisfying. It just leaves us hanging. But overall, Atwood is a terrific writer exploring the science fiction themes of apocalypse and dystopia, and Oryx and Crakeis a terrific contribution to this genre.