We see England, we see France
In the vacation month of August, the Beamers take no break but press on with our literary pursuits, this time chasing after a gaggle of sf/f writers who are exploring the many different “final frontier” images that occupy our favorite genres. We See a Different Frontier, a slim volume edited by Fabbio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, presents itself as a “Postcolonial Speculative Fiction” anthology. If we had any problems with it, being short may have been the biggest.
To Boldly Split Infinitives and Assumptions
The anthology comprises 16 stories, together with preface/intro/afterword, all bundled into 214 pages. The editors talk about their fundraising effort to publish the book, and the brevity of the stories is a likely direct result. Still, they managed to attract a wide range of contributors and have seen at least 2 of their entries selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best collection. Where we typically ran into problems was with the sense of tales left incomplete or told in too much of a rush, possibly due to the limits imposed by budget or space.
What Comes in Small Packages
What we did like, though, we liked a lot. Short they may be, but some of these stories pack in quite a bit of intellectual and emotional content. Following on a question about money in the future, we started by looking at “Droplet” by Rahul Kanakia. Here, an Indian couple return to California to bring their son to Stanford. What emerges, though, when the boy starts questioning the family narrative about being driven out by racial intolerance (not that this future USA does not feature anti-foreigner laws), is a much more nuanced look at the issue of emigration and national citizenship.
Subhir, the son, though born in California, has no memories of it and considers himself Indian, wanting to stay there for school. His father, Rajiv, it turns out, was the one who sold the water rights to the family farm, enriching them but also making it necessary to leave. His friend, Aravind Patel, stayed and still runs his family’s motel business and is not pleased when Rajiv will not admit to profiting off of others’ misery.
We discussed the various angles that could support each character’s interpretation, the effects of global warming, the status of water rights in the western US (which leads to often bizarre legal rulings and water management practices), as well as the notion of loyalty to collectives like family, community, or nation. All from a 12-page story.
It’s Only Words
The idea of identity in a post-colonial setting came up several times during our discussion. Even some of the stories that were hampered by being too short, like Dinesh Rao’s “A Bridge of Words”, gave some interesting takes on how people see themselves through the lens of past conquest and relocation. This story, which features a linguist whose field work on tattoos among her ethnic cousins leads to deciphering a mysterious spaceship’s message, attracted several of us who enjoy language stories.
It also offered the character of Riya, the linguist who is honored in her native land for her heritage but was raised in the conqueror’s homeland, which is where she feels at home. Liz and Donna both enjoyed the puzzle aspect of the story, with the linkage of ethnography on tattoos revealing a hidden language (banned by the conquerors). I did, too, though the rapid resolution of the language puzzle and its application to the spaceship made me wonder if we were reading a summary of the novel that Mr. Rao could (and should) write.
Every Jellyfish UFO Has a Silver Lining
Nor do the stories stick solely with the oppressed, as in Silvia Morena-Garcia’s “Them Ships”, where the narrator is a former street child from Mexico City. Now, taken in by the aliens who arrived in starships like “flying jellyfish” and given decent clothes and food, she finds it hard to identify with her fellow captives itching to form a resistance. She does help them to escape, but she does not intervene after they are captured. They called her “Malinche”, after the Aztec woman sold to the conquistadors who help translate native languages and culture for them. We discussed the nature of conquest and the replacement of a native empire by a foreign one. What does the change of elites mean to the folks on the street? Here, it means that some of them, at least, get a better break than before the conquest, a state to which they are not trying to return. The aliens are mysterious, as we never learn of their intentions or motives. But the result, at least for our narrator, is clearly a positive one. Take that, Rebel Alliance!
A Quatloo for Your Thoughts
Getting into an alien mindset is one of the hallmarks of speculative fiction, and we enjoyed the experience in Sunny Moraine’s “A Heap of Broken Images”, one of the Year’s Best selections. In the aftermath of a massacre, human tourists visit the sites and the memorial (a 100-foot tall “single black spike”). The local tour guide, a child of massacre survivors, is a member of a culture that values circumspect behavior and even finds the scars of survivors to be “rude” in reminding everyone of the massacre, even after the blood-price has been paid. Shairoven, the guide, is plagued with questions and has no cultural permission to ask the humans why it happened or why they come back.
Much in the story remains mysterious, not only for being seen through alien eyes. Liz wondered about a culture that could accept a “blood-price” and whether such debts could be paid. Fran thought of Auschwitz and the other death camps when the humans (whose names are Aaron and Jacob, I noticed) visit the massacre site. And what of the memorial, that “single black spike”, which the narrator sees as angry, something that “stabs and stabs, blindly, forever”? Donna noted that is could be an obelisk, an ancient form of human memorial. But refracted through Shairoven, it becomes somewhat monstrous.
The Gods Might be Crazy, but the Locals Take No Chances
The other Year’s Best story, “Fleet” by Sandra McDonald, also caught my eye with its emotional impact as much as its clear reversal of the “cargo cult” phenomenon. On a near-future Guam, after mega-solar flares knock out all high tech communications, we see a pastoral society struggling with its post-collapse issues (salvaging materials and methane from landfills are main occupations), while preserving its native culture. Until someone from the outside, a Russian sailor/marine, shows up. Far from the islanders being anxious for the benefits of “civilization”, they reveal their own technological innovations involving brain reading (and re-writing) equipment. I found the sudden reveal and reversal to provide a lot of emotional power, as the narrator is caught unawares herself, but Nick thought that the ending too abrupt, making it more a first chapter than a stand-alone story.
Sailing Takes Me Away to Where I’ve Always Heard it Could Be
“Lotus” by Joyce Chng divided us, mainly over our suspension of disbelief. Not so much at the setting of a drowned world turned into a series of waterways or the nautical culture that adapts to it. But over whether we could accept the goodness of the protagonists in not exploiting their secret pool of fresh water and fish. Edward in his e-mail remarks found it “a bit too utopian”, though pleasant. Fran called herself too cynical to believe that anyone would simply sail away from such a stash of goodies. Liz, on the other hand, liked the contrast between the extreme territoriality of the few landlubbers left and the open, sharing lifestyle of the sea people, something that Donna, too, found natural due to the lack of fixed boundaries on water.
I felt a similar stab of cynicism as Fran’s, but I gave in to my sentimental side and rooted for the two (soon to be three) sailors. Their refusal to become territorial was not presented as a general change but only one small step by one couple, leading away from the impulses that drown the planet. For the sake of taking one small step, I thought it was worth believing in the characters.