Kat Zhang, What’s Left of Me (2012)


I was taking a break from YA dystopias and then my library got this book and I went OH WELL. The premise is that everyone is born with two souls in one body, and by age six or so the “recessive” personality will have faded. Sometimes it takes longer, but if a child hasn’t “settled” by ten then usually the government hauls them off to a mental institution. The parents, let me be clear, are complicit in this: They’ve been conditioned to believe that their children are “sick,” and they will sign anything they’re asked to in the interests of “fixing” them. Because this is a dystopia there’s a pervasive atmosphere of fear – people are encouraged to spy on their neighbors in case they’re secretly hybrids. A hybrid is an adult body that harbors two souls. What’s Left of Me is Book 1 of The Hybrid Chronicles, and you guys I am SO EXCITED for the rest.

The reason I was taking a break from the subgenre in the first place is that I’m tired of it. I’m tired of specious love triangles and I’m tired of watching smart, scared kids scrabbling ineffectually against a repressive government, succeeding largely by dumb luck. These two things – love triangles and repressive governments – are not unrelated, by the way, and it’s easy to get the balance wrong. Not just for authors – for readers too. If, for instance, you read The Hunger Games as Team Gale vs. Team Peeta then I’m sorry, you’re doing it wrong. Here’s how you do it right: recognize that the personal is political, that “Which boy do I like more?” is a question that cannot be separated from the problematic configuration of the society the protagonist inhabits. As far as this goes it’s safe to say that Kat Zhang has done it right.

The narrator of What’s Left of Me, Eva, is not supposed to exist anymore. Her other self, Addie, has always been dominant, and at the painfully late age of twelve Addie was declared “settled.” By then there had been an interminable sequence of doctor’s visits, their parents begging for just a little bit more time. Now Addie and Eva are fifteen. Nobody knows that Eva’s still there; she hasn’t been able to move a muscle of her own volition for years. They’ve moved to a new town where Addie can have a fresh start. That’s where they meet social outcast Hally and her brother Devon.

SPOILER ALERT Hally and Devon are sekritly hybrids too! They’re also half-Asian, which is why they’re social outcasts, because the USA has become (was always?) a super xenophobic place. One of the things I like about this book is that it explores themes like American exceptionalism using science-fictional mechanisms. Apparently, the Revolutionary War was fought not because we didn’t want to pay taxes to the British but because we wanted to eradicate hybridism. Accordingly we killed the hybrids in our midst, and the remaining gene pool consisted of people who would shed their recessive souls as children. As Eva and Addie eventually discover, however, this is not the whole story, nor even the real story. It’s a YA dystopia so you know the authority figures have been lying about everything under the sun. The real story involves drugs designed to suppress the recessive soul, drugs slipped into childhood vaccinations. The real story is that the rest of the world, far from shunning the USA and its radical anti-hybrid policies, is bankrolling the drugs. Which is insane because as far as we know the rest of the world is all hybrid. So I’m sure we’ll find out more in subsequent books, but for now I’m really glad that Zhang has challenged the narrative of American isolationism = good. In a lot of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction it’s like the rest of the world is “Here Be Dragons,” we don’t know or care what happened to them after the zombies came or whatever, but Zhang doesn’t do that.

This is a really emotional book. What I mean by that is you won’t be falling in love with the fancy syntax or anything. As a connoisseur of fancy syntactical edifices, I admit that I’m sometimes disappointed, but not this time. I think that the choice to make Eva the narrator was an excellent one, as we really get to see the difference in her and Addie’s personalities. Addie is the “stronger” one – louder, more driven, more decisive. Occasionally a conflict flares up between them and while it’s clear that Eva is sometimes resentful of Addie’s dominance and Addie feels guilty for it, it’s also clear that they share a bond that is more than capable of weathering such differences. So Addie and Eva are strongly developed characters. Hally is less developed beyond “loudmouthed BFF of protagonist who gets them both involved in dangerous situations.” Hally’s brother Devon is the love interest. Or rather, Devon’s other soul, Ryan. When Ryan and Eva fall for each other it makes things awkward for Addie and Devon, who cannot after all step into the next room to give them privacy. The romance is hard to negotiate, and this is what I meant about the personal being political – if Addie and Eva had been brought up in a context where hybridity was normal, there would have been protocols for this kind of thing. Instead they will have to fumble their way towards love.

As successful as the centuries-old campaign against hybrids has been, there are fissures in American society. The “vaccination” program cannot alter the fundamental fact that hybrids are not “other” – they are us. Each and every person is born sharing their body with another soul, and that experience leaves an indelible impression on them. That is where the fissure lies – not in the rogue hybrids the FBI is so intent on catching, but in the souls of “normal,” healthy human beings. Twice in the text Eva identifies such pressure points: Once when her little brother is undergoing kidney dialysis for a chronic health condition, he asks her if he’ll get to be with Nathaniel when he dies. Nathaniel was his other soul. The second time, Eva/Addie is pleading with a sympathetic doctor at the hospital where she’s been institutionalized. Eva, Addie, and their cohort of hybrid children need this doctor’s help to effect their escape. In desperation she asks the doctor, “What was her name? The soul you lost?” and that’s when the doctor relents.

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Graham Joyce, Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012)


Peter’s sister Tara disappeared twenty years ago, at which time he and his parents severed all ties with her boyfriend – who was also Peter’s best mate. I mean they understandbly suspected this chap of doing away with her, because naturally you always suspect the husband/boyfriend first. Anyway Tara shows up looking not a day over sixteen, spouting a ridiculous story about being abducted by faeries. Peter takes her to a shrink, and–this is the interesting part–we get a few chapters from the shrink’s “notes,” basically taking a psychoanalytic approach to Tara’s story: This here means she’s projecting her sexual fantasies onto this other character, this here means she’s repressing.

As readers of this genre we never doubt that Tara’s telling the truth, of course. Exactly what “this genre” is is harder to say, but it’s as old as dirt and a working definition might look something like “stories of fantastic things happening to mundane people.” One important thread in the novel is storytelling itself, the question of who does it and to what end it’s deployed. When Richie, Tara’s teenage boyfriend, is hauled into the police station his instinct is to cooperate; he’s got nothing to hide, after all. It quickly becomes evident that whatever Richie’s other virtues, he’s not a very bright bloke. He’s puzzled that his interrogators seem profoundly disappointed in his answers; at one point the officer is practically salivating at Richie’s admission of assaulting her next to a boulder in the woods when in reality he’s just admitting to having sex with her there. When Richie’s lawyer steps outside for a bathroom break, the remaining interrogators pull the good cop/bad cop routine on him and proceed to beat him to a pulp: “It ain’t me who is the cunt, Richie. See, what I am is the storyteller. I know how all the stories work. ’Cos I’ve heard ’em many times over. You get so you know which ones to believe.” Richie, you see, is unaware that other people have constructed some compelling narratives of how these things happen, and he’s walked right into one. Now he has to play the role expected of him.

This is a weird book. It starts from Peter’s third-person limited point of view, and then we get Tara’s first-person recollections of her time with the faeries, interspersed with Richie’s third-person limited POV from twenty years ago when she first disappeared. And the shrink’s psychoanalysis gets a few chapters, of course. In the end it’s got less to say about faeries than about class differences, and about how vulnerable women are. One of the places where it really shines is in the minor character of Peter’s thirteen-year-old son Jack, who accidentally kills his elderly neighbor’s cat. Then he gets roped into helping her look for her missing cat, printing up flyers and so forth, and eventually a mixture of guilt and genuine concern prompts him to hatch a crazy scheme to find a similar-looking cat, slap the old cat’s collar on her, present this creature to the old lady, and bask in her gratitude. The connection to the novel’s larger themes is fairly obvious; for although Tara is not an imposter (they got X-rays of her teeth to make sure), she is also not a replacement for or continuation of the old Tara who disappeared 20 years ago. The fact that the elderly neighbor with the cat was also taken by faeries many years ago is a fitting twist. That kind of experience changes you, whether you’re away for 20 years or six months (which was the subjective amount of time that passed for Tara).

I’m less happy with the way that Tara’s relationships with men are portrayed. Peter, her big brother, is overbearing and thinks he knows what’s good for her better than she does. He thinks she’s straight-up lying about where she’s been for 20 years and he keeps setting verbal traps for her, trying to catch her out in lies. While some of this is excusable on the grounds of this-must-be-tough-for-him-too, it’s harder to excuse the behavior of the two men Tara gets involved with in Fairyland, who are both OBSESSED with her to an unhealthy degree. One time they fought a duel to the death over her, and Tara freaked out because the “bad” one killed the “nice” one, except it turns out nobody actually dies in duels to the death, their bodies are burned on pyres and they’re reincarnated, healthy as a horse! Fine. But then the “nice” elf turns out to be not-so-nice, and he’s angry that Tara won’t have sex with him and angry that she won’t stay, and although he delivers on his promise to return her to her own world he also follows here there and stalks her day and night. In his spare time he causes a cancerous tumor to grow in Richie’s brain because he’s jealous that Tara likes Richie better than him.

Don’t even get me started on Richie. Lots of boys fall for their best mate’s sister, and I certainly don’t think Harry Potter, for instance, is at all objectionable for doing so, but this is how Richie describes it: “One day she was a skinny kid and the next day there was this glow about her … I watches her blossom every day. No one knew. I don’t think she knew. I never let her see me watching.” That’s not romantic, it’s creepy. Is the skinny-tomboy-to-beautiful-butterfly metamorphosis supposed to be original? So over it. Richie also tends to cast Tara in Manic Pixie Dream Girl terms that I don’t agree with, because Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not the sum of who she is. She’s got much more agency than that; she doesn’t just exist to inspire Richie to write songs about her (he’s a guitarist).

In conclusion I’m kind of torn about this book. On the one hand I did enjoy it. In inhaled the last 300 pages in one sitting, which means I must have found something compelling about it. On the other hand I feel like it’s doing a much better job playing with tropes and lampshading them than telling its own story. If I wasn’t so attracted to books that deal with just this topic–the liminal space between “realistic” and “fantastic” narratives–I doubt I’d have enjoyed it half as much. I render this verdict with the caveat that Jack and the old lady with the cat are both awesome, and the book is worth reading for their delightful interaction alone.

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Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

left hand of darkness

There is a scene in 2007’s The Jane Austen Book Club where Maria Bello’s character, having stayed up all night reading a sci-fi classic recommended by Hugh Dancy’s character, drives to Dancy’s house in the pre-dawn hours to rave about how awesome it was and how much she regrets not reading it sooner. The context of this conversation is that Dancy, your prototypical geeky science fiction aficionado, has over the past few months been attending the Austen book club of which Bello is a member, even though he plainly doesn’t perceive the appeal of Austen. During this time he has repeatedly urged Bello to read his favorite book, going so far as to lend her a copy. Bello, whose primary objective in roping Dancy into the book club is to set him up with her newly divorced friend, is oblivious to his interest in herself – both on a romantic and an intellectual level. The film figures her decision to finally pick up Dancy’s book as a gesture of remorse but also of good faith – her way of saying that she’s ready to stop telling him what to do (thou shalt read Austen) and engage in an genuine conversation. The name of the book is The Left Hand of Darkness.

I am here to talk about genre; about what it is and isn’t capable of telling us about books and the people who read them. Austen’s fans are notorious for the intensity of their zeal; not, however, because they tend to be any more zealous than LOTR fans or Star Wars fans. Why is it that when a bunch of women like something, their passion renders them hysterical and possibly psychotic (see also: Twilight)? Why don’t franchises with a predominantly male fanbase see the same aspersions cast in their direction? Aja Romano describes the polarization of Inception fandom into “the mostly male side that congregates at forum-based sites like Nolanfans, and the largely female side that produces fanwork on LiveJournal, Tumblr, [and] Archive of Our Own.” This is, incidentally, an accurate overview of ASOIAF fandom, where the unrelenting misogyny of the westeros.org forums is legendary. My question is not, Do men and women gravitate towards different types of discussions about the media they consume? I think it’s pretty clear that they do; and that while women write plenty of mind-blowingly good meta, you don’t find a corresponding number of (straight) men writing fan fiction. That gender roles play a huge role in determining our interests is not news. Typically, girls who excel at traditionally male activities gain prestige as “one of the guys,” while engaging in traditionally female activities appears to be, for boys, a surefire way to commit social suicide. We are conditioned to see the genres of romance and speculative fiction as not just appealing to different demographics, but as eliciting different forms of discourse: fans of Austen and of LeGuin don’t engage with the text the same way. Such a comparison, which casts these writers as representative of their genres, is also complicated by the fact that Jane Austen boasts a robust literary reputation that few romance novelists enjoy; that Ursula LeGuin wrote a book about an ambisexual alien species in order to interrogate (among other things) the “naturalness” of gender as a social and biological category. Yet if The Left Hand of Darkness is a seminal work of feminist science fiction, Austen is no less the site of animated feminist criticism, both popular and academic. The notion that LeGuin (or maybe sci-fi in general) is somehow the antithesis of Austen is ridiculous. Let me be clear: The Jane Austen Book Club is not implying that women should stick to romance and men to sci-fi. But it is obvious that the Regency romance is Bello’s natural habitat as a reader, just as Dancy is at home among works of speculative fiction. It’s like the screenwriters sat around tossing names into a hat called “Which of these things is least like Jane Austen” and the consensus was “Ursula LeGuin duh.”

So having established that people who enjoy Austen and people who enjoy LeGuin are frequently the same people (how is this even surprising?! they’re both canonical works), I’ll turn to the book itself. The Left Hand of Darkness is often hailed as a novel that explores Big Ideas – yet this does not mean it lacks the quality of interiority that characterizes Austen’s fiction. In the preface to this edition LeGuin contends that “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” Like all literature, it aims to be descriptive of human nature, which generally means human relationships. LeGuin gives us, in The Left Hand of Darkness, the story of an epic friendship: Our narrator, Genly, is the (male) envoy to a planet inhabited by ambisexuals; Estraven is an enigmatic local politician who may be Genly’s greatest ally (he may also be planning to get Genly tortured/incarcerated/exiled). Genly is eventually incarcerated through none of Estraven’s doing; Estraven rescues him and their escape route lies across 700 miles of glacier in the dead of winter. In the course of this hike they become bros. They join Western literature’s pantheon of notable bros (cf. Arthur and Lancelot, Holmes and Watson). This is the kind of friendship that the phrase “blood brothers” was invented to describe.

Actually the word “brother” has multiple valences here. The motif of brothers – actual people who share genetic material through their common descent from one or more parents – kept cropping up in the interludes towards the beginning of the book, which are narrated in the mode of fairy tales or myths in the oral tradition. So we get all these stories about brothers whose relationships were in some way socially transgressive, and then we begin to find out more about Estraven’s deceased brother, whose death marked Estraven’s ascent into the role of Tragic Hero. Because you can’t have a Tragic Hero without a Tragic Doomed Romance. Of course, when the text says “brother” it really means “sibling” because everybody on this planet is androgynous except during the time of month when they come into kemmer: at that point they pick a partner and literally fuck for days. Although the presence of a partner hastens the process of coming into kemmer, it’s impossible to predict which partner will develop into which sex. You could be a male this month, impregnate your partner no big deal, and next month turn into a female and pop out a baby yourself. I mention this because the logistics of babymaking is a super salient factor in the way our society is organized – childbearing/raising is labor, even if it has not historically been recognized as such by men who haven’t had to do it. Here is an extraterrestial visitor (not Genly, a different one) musing on the implications of the unique physiology of the inhabitants of the planet Winter: “The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be ‘tied down to childbearing,’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere.”

So yes, Big Ideas abound in this book. My particular interest in bros, however, is informed by a culture where brotherhood is inflected by gender. Just say the word “sisterhood” out loud, and you’ll see what I mean. Wildly different connotations, no? Women’s relationships with women can never approximate the dynamic of men’s relationships with each other, and women’s relationships with men are always distorted by the elephant in the room, namely SEX. LeGuin draws attention to this when she introduces a relationship that has all the traits of brotherhood, and yet technically it isn’t because technically Estraven is both a man and a woman.

Some time ago a friend of mine reblogged a gif of X-Men: First Class’s Charles Xavier cuddling with Raven (Mystique), with the commentary #bros before hos #i will never not be bitter about him leaving her for erik. First Class is, of course, the story of how Charles befriends Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and how together they hatch a plan to save the world. In the process Charles alienates his childhood BFF, Raven. To say that some people ship Charles and Erik is involves about the same level of understatement as saying some people ship Kirk and Spock. And to reconfigure Raven and Charles as the “bros” to Erik’s “ho” is to subvert the gender politics that urge us to prioritize “bros” before “hos” in the first place: how can a boy and a girl be bros? Colloquially such usage is common, but when you say “Me and X and bros” and one of you is a girl, you are extrapolating from a relationship between males. That relationship lays the template for yours. So yes, girls can be bros – but only if their relationships reproduce the dynamics of the normative male-male bond. What we get, then, is a pale imitation of brotherhood. I’m not satisfied with that. Ursula LeGuin, bless her soul, picks this problem apart and shows us other possibilities.

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Frances Hardinge, The Lost Conspiracy (2009)


[Posting the UK cover because it is SO MUCH PRETTIER]

There is an island with volcanoes. Here some few individuals – “the Lost” – are born with a gift for astral projection, by which they are able to cast all five senses out of their bodies to a place of their choosing. It’s a highly useful and sought-after gift – useful because the volcanoes render much of the island impassable to its pre-Industrial inhabitants, so that the most reliable means of communication is to write messages down and leave them in designated “tidings huts” for each town’s resident Lost to peruse with their mind’s eye; sought-after because when a Lost child is born, a great deal of status and a small economic windfall can be expected to accrue to the hometown of this august personage. It is in the context of a struggling fishing village that we meet our protagonist, Hathin, whose sister Arilou is the village’s pride and joy: Their very own Lady Lost. Because Arilou, like many Lost children, manifests discomfort with her physical body she frequently wanders away from it, and at these times it is Hathin’s job as her designated attendant to make sure Arilou doesn’t trip on anything, or cut herself, or leave a line of spittle down her chin. Being one’s sister shadow is a thankless task and a tiring one. But Hathin loves her sister in equal measure as she resents the role of caretaker that has been thrust upon her since birth; she’s only thirteen years old and she’s got the all the village’s hopes riding on her. I say they are riding on her rather than Arilou, because Arilou doesn’t talk she just mumbles incoherently and then Hathin “interprets” for her. At this point the reader begins to suspect that a Lost child being born among the poorest, most reviled tribe on the island is a suspiciously fortuitous circumstance.

So something about this book bothered me from the get-go, and when I figure out what it was, it was a revelation of such magnitude that I had to put the book down to digest it: This book is set in Australia. The setting is a fantasy analogue of New Zealand, to be precise, but the point is that it’s Down Under, and I was obviously operating on the assumption that fantasy worlds – unless they carried clear disclaimers – were all built on a vaguely feudal European template – and yes I can think of plenty that aren’t but have you noticed how the Asian or Middle Eastern influence is the very first thing blurbs or reviewers talk about? Frances Hardinge, on the other hand, does not make a big deal out of the fact that this is a fantasy novel that just happens to be set in the Southern Hemisphere. To this end she uses words like “tribes” and “colonists” sparingly, and even some things that should have been a dead giveaway (like people drilling/setting jewels in their teeth) weren’t, because I hadn’t read the relevant anthropological literature. I am so glad she wrote this book – this fabulous and original young adult novel that clocks in at over 500 pages so not a light easy or quick read, but worth the investment of your time because Hathin. Hathin starts out a mouse of a girl, and by the end she’s really come into her own as an indispensable mediator between the island’s fractious factions. I love her character arc and I love how Hardinge shows us two potential romantic liaisons for Hathin but wisely leaves it at that – potential, in the bud, not actualized – and I love the scene where a minor character tells Hathin, essentially, “I know you’ve been brought up all your life to believe that Arilou is the most important person in the world but listen up that is no longer the case, the people who told you that are dead and it’s your job to revenge them. So now YOU are the most important person in the world, got it?” And I feel like that was a turning point for her, because it shows she can grow without rejecting her upbringing and her values, which is so important because the teenage female protagonist is always chafing against systems of oppression – whether modern, medieval, dystopian – and the most popular way to do this seems to be, become a Badass Woman Warrior. And while we can always use more girls kicking ass and taking names, I think it’s important to engage with political power structures too, and that’s what Hathin (rather reluctantly) does: She learns to play the game. She prevents (what was shaping up to be) a Holocaust. She evacuates a disbelieving populace out of the path of a volcanic explosion, and she gets them to reevaluate their attachment to ancestor worship – a socially injurious practice that was directly responsible for widespread starvation as the island’s fertile land was increasingly taken up by ancestral urns and ashes and the buildings that housed them. I grant that this is likely an unnecessarily detailed account of Hathin’s virtues and accomplishments, but it’s the only way I can communicate how impressed I am with her. I will for sure be keeping an eye out for the rest of Frances Hardinge’s work.

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Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (1974)


I didn’t expect John Scalzi to write the preface. Mind you, I’ve never actually read anything by Scalzi, but he maintains a very active + entertaining internet presence, and generally has accurate statements to make about everything. When they brought out this new edition of The Forever War they decided to carpet-bomb the first few pages with accolades from SF/F luminaries – in addition to Scalzi these include William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Stephen King, Iain Banks, Greg Bear and Junot Diaz. I just want to point out that Junot Diaz was six years old when The Forever War appeared in 1974, Cory Doctorow was three and Scalzi himself was five. Since the book is a sci-fi classic this is obviously not a case of getting, say, George R.R. Martin to blurb the cover of your fantasy debut. It feels like the marketing department had too much say in this, like the publisher wanted to make sure it remained ~relevant with the hip new millenial crowd. Which is redundant because that’s what classics are, they’re always relevant.

I could tell you that this book is The Things We Carried meets Enders Game, but that would only tell you how much I hate reading about the military. I hate the endless minutiae and I hate the opaque jargon and I hate the arbitrary inflexibility of the chain of command. What I enjoy is the psychological dimension of warfare – that’s why my copy of Ender has seen better days, because Orson Scott Card can play mind games like nobody else. So when I say that Joe Haldeman, a ’Nam vet, could probably keep me entertained just by writing about weapons specs, you should understand the caliber of the complement I am paying him. He’s a fine storyteller. The tale is really tightly woven in the way that I associate with short stories – novels usually have more padding. It is, in brief, the story of a young man who’s drafted into an interstellar war and because of the way time dilation works, as he shuttles between planets at near-lightspeed whole centuries fly by. Our protagonist, William Mandella, is the son of hippies; he starts off deeply disillusioned (with the military;the government; the human race) and it only gets worse as he continues to fight a pointless, never-ending war against an enemy he doesn’t understand.

I picked up this book because it’s one of the foundational texts of the genre, and not because I thought I would particularly enjoy it. Well, I enjoyed it a helluva lot. Mandella is brave and smart but mostly he’s superbly lucky, and he’s also funny. His first-person narration is a joy to slip into, and once in a while you get observations like this one, in the midst of a completely serious passage about tactics: “One thing we didn’t have to worry about in this war was enemy agents. With a good coat of paint, a Tauran might be able to disguise himself as an ambulatory mushroom.”

Of course it wouldn’t be a real review if I didn’t find problematic aspects to pick apart, so how about from now on nobody write any more books about a future dystopia where people are conditioned to be gay, and the ones who show hetero inclinations receive mandatory counseling for their sociopathy?? Please. Just stop. It’s billed as a way to keep the explosive population levels manageable. So you have the pro-homosexual agenda being linked to the eugenics agenda! Even better. One of the reasons they made it illegal to be heterosexual is that “the Council saw that racial differences had an unnecessarily divisive effect on humanity; with total control over births, they could make everybody the same race in a few generations.” It’s hard not to read this as a straw man for the progressive liberal agenda of today: The movement to eradicate structural inequalities like racism is recast as a totalitarian drive to control every aspect of every citizen’s life. Look, by the time Mandella is promoted to Major, he’s like 600 years old and ruthlessly stigmatized by his peers for his sexual orientation. They call him “The Old Queer” because sometime in the last 600 years, homosexuality has become the norm. My question is – why is this necessary???? Why did we have to flip things around so heterosexuals are the persecuted minority? Here in the real world LGBT people routinely lose out on housing, jobs, promotions, all kinds of privileges that straight cis people enjoy without a second thought – so I ask again, what is the predictable consequence of reconfiguring the world to make gays the intolerant majority? You’re fueling the argument that “liberals” just want to forcibly convert everybody into homosexuals. Yes, it’s an argument that you only hear from the loony far right, but it nonetheless strikes a chord of fear in the hearts of men, not all of whom necessarily consider themselves conservative. Consider how rigidly our society polices masculinity, how boys are constantly having to prove that they only participate in activities coded as male (a shame since reading and studying are often coded as feminine). Mandella is faced with the real or perceived threat of undergoing an operation to get his orientation “fixed,” and he recoils in horror from the mere suggestion. This is definitely not a book about how sexual orientation doesn’t matter, how we’re all the same under the skin. Male heterosexuality is quite clearly the “natural” order of things. “So much of my ‘normal’ behavior was based on a complex unspoken code of sexual etiquette. Was I supposed to treat the men like women, and vice versa?” GENDER ESSENTIALISM AT ITS BEST. Here’s a novel idea: How about you treat women like human beings? Of course, such advice is unlikely to be taken to heart by a man who is on record as saying: “Surrounded by acres of young female flesh, I stared into their faces and desperately tried to solve a third-order differential equation in my head.”

The proclivity to represent female characters as potential sexual partners first, and human beings second, is certainly not unique to Joe Haldeman. It’s endemic to most works of classic science fiction, and I don’t mean to be a debbie downer and rag on Haldeman disproportionately. He’s written a fantastic book that has stood the test of time, and I’m glad I read it. But it’s hard to ignore the propaganda and the moralizing about the supposed superiority of the “homolife,” all of which is of course subverted by Mandella’s defiant heterosexuality. The final third of the book is basically “omg the poor beleaguered straight man, look what he has to deal with” and let’s be real that is the least sympathetic character arc ever. Thank god there were plenty of nuclear detonations to break up the monotony.

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Kij Johnson, At the Mouth of the River of Bees (2012)

at the mouth of the river of bees

The first story in At the Mouth of the River of Bees features an itinerant stage magician whose pièce de résistance involves dozens of monkeys disappearing (teleporting out of?) an empty bathtub … at which point I was immediately sold. I don’t read a lot of short fiction – unless it’s Robert Silverberg compiling all my favorite fantasy authors into one volume, in which case I am always game – so the gear-shifting of getting myself re-invested in each and every story all over again tended to throw off my rhythm. Some stories were easier to get into than others. I found that the super short ones, like two or three pagers, slotted seamlessly into her overall authorial vision – but they wouldn’t really make much sense if you didn’t have the entire book for context? Nobody is going to be anthologizing the My Little Ponies story. Or the one where the first-person narrator endlessly fucks an alien inside of an escape pod in order to stave off insanity.

But to return to why I liked the piece with the monkeys. Johnson depicts animals as both companions and protagonists in their own right, but her human characters tend to be enmeshed in a web of sparse rather than dense relationships. In other words they’re lonely. This is facilitated by many of her stories being set in prehistoric or far future eras, where the signature hustle of modern life is absent. The settings vary widely but there is a definite East Asian bent, as I count at least three in feudal Japan. While this is not normally something I would pay attention to, I’ve been reading a lot of glowing reviews of Karen Tidbeth’s Jaganneth, another fabulous short story collection whose Scandinavian source material (in terms of mythology, cuisine) is much remarked upon. And it’s always good to see speculative fiction that doesn’t take medieval European culture for the neutral default. It was admittedly a lot of work plodding through the slower, thinkier parts of this book but one thing I will give her: Kij Johnson knows what she is doing, and while she did not always keep me entertained she certainly kept my brain engaged. (This is not surprising given that she has a trophy case full of Nebulas to her name.)

The standouts, for me, included “Fox Magic,” which is about a fox who falls for a human and invokes magic to entice him to abandon home and hearth for a life with her. All I could think about was OH SHIT TOM RIDDLE’S POOR MUM – predictably it didn’t end well. Infatuations brought about by enchantment never do. What made the whole scenario wrenching instead of merely tragic, however, was that the jilted human wife was a sympathetic if shadowy character, and it was clear that the affair wasn’t just unsustainable because of anything as mundane as magic. Because at the end of the day the fox-wife is just as dependent on the man’s whims as the woman is, and who are we to judge her for using every weapon in her arsenal to hold onto him? Like I realize the ending of the story is overtly optimistic, suggesting that maybe he’ll choose to come back to the fox-life – no beguilement necessary this time – but I don’t read the message as ~love conquers all~.

The other one that tore my heart out of my ribcage and stomped all over it was “Horse Raiders,” which did this by virtue of KILLING ALL THE DOGS within the first three pages. That hurt me more than the massacre of Katia’s entire family, since I only met these people three pages ago so whatever, but dogs are dogs. Katia is the tribe’s dog handler, and she’s trained them to respond to a truly impressive array of commands, everything from dance to look around. Katia’s people are nomads with a rich oral history, though they only occupy one small corner of a planet that appears to have been colonized many millenia ago from Earth. Johnson does some of her best worldbuilding in this piece and I am itching to learn more about what is going on elsewhere, especially in the territories of the Mongol Empire analogue, which we only glimpse secondhand. Anyway the imperials kill everybody except Katia’s three-year-old niece, whom they keep as a hostage for Katia’s good behavior, and they bundle the two of them off for the capital. Also along for the ride: The tribe’s horses, who appear to be miraculously immune from a wasting disease that is making all the other horses in the Empire drop like flies. This being an Empire built by horse-riders, such an epidemic is of serious concern – and pursuing a cure, even a chancy one, is worth killing an entire tribe in order to kidnap their healer. Lying amidst the carnage of her slaughtered family, Katia insists that all the dogs – most of them bristling with arrows – are given the mercy stroke. She finds that the more time she spends with her captors the less she is able to hate them. What they did to her family is beyond forgiving; the problem is that human beings – like horses and dogs – are complicated creatures. Katia sense of helplessness grows as her niece, Mara, becomes attached to a young boy who tucks her in his saddle and tells stories about his sister, who is the same age as Mara. The trajectory towards cultural assimilation is already clear, and Katia wonders if Mara will eventually forget her parents or where she comes from. I’m going to stop here because if I talk more about this story I’m going to start crying, anyway Kij Johnson is crazy good obviously I’m going to have to read her other stuff now.

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Elizabeth Hand, Illyria (2010)


Illyria is a slim volume about a pair of adolescents trapped in their own claustrophobic world. Which is my favorite kind of story, obviously – the Flowers in the Attic kind of story! They’re first cousins – their fathers were twins, one of whom ended up having all boys while the other one had all girls. Thus, Madeleine and Rogan, the youngest members of the Tiernay clan, were born hours apart and grew up inseparable. Rogan has the voice of an angel and “looked like he’d fallen out of a painting.” Maddy worships him. Have I mentioned lately that I adore stories narrated by a naive young girl who harbors an unhealthy obsession with her glamorous older brother who eventually turns out to be your garden-variety egotistical cad who ruins the lives of everyone in his orbit? (cf. Alice Hoffman, White Horses; Kelly Braffet, Josie and Jack) Consider it mentioned. Anyway they find this secret attic crawlspace where there’s a mysterious snowglobe/theater/idek, and they spend hours and hours there, talking or kissing or doing nothing at all. I greatly enjoy stories about kids who cuddle a lot and wear each other’s clothes.

They’re Irish American; the kind that have gone to Mass every Sunday of their lives as a matter of course. They live in an era when “my mother has taken a job [in retail]” is something to be remarked upon. They try out for the school play, Twelfth Night, where Rogan’s mesmerizing turn as Feste ends up bringing down the house. Maddy, meanwhile, plays a perfectly competent, unremarkable Viola. My brother, he is in Elysium

There is an ambiguity at the center of this book. Or maybe it’s deliberate equivocation. Does industry trump talent? Does the tortoise always win the race? Does Maddy’s decades-long career as a character actor, hopping from one supporting role to another, represent the apex of what the Tierneys are capable of? Would it not have been better – swifter, surely – to set Rogan loose on the world’s stage, to watch him go supernova and burn out? I just, I am unconvinced it had to be this way. That there was no future for them. Because what if Maddie hadn’t gone to study theatre in England the winter they turned sixteen, what if Rogan hadn’t let the drugs take over his life and they’d stayed in love, can you stay for certain that it wouldn’t have worked? Their love wasn’t inherently destructive. But they lived in a society that insisted they were bad for each other (maybe they were), that they had to be separated, and afterwards they never regained the preternatural connection they possessed when they were young. I want to know that blood is thicker than water, that inappropriately close adolescent friendships can survive the floodlights of adulthood.

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