Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China

By Ksenia Shcherbino

It is as human to move from one place to another in search of a better life, as it is to divide the world into categories of “us” and “them.” However, there is no universal definition of a ‘migrant’. Migrants are not inherently vulnerable. However, they often find themselves marginalized in the host country and are perceived by some to threaten national identity, economy, social cohesion and cultural norms. As Saskia Bonjour and Sebastien Chouvin warn us, “discourses on migration, integration and citizenship are inevitably classed, because representations of Self and Other are inevitably classed [1]”. Practices of inclusion/exclusion are based on power dynamics which are rarely fair and more often than not based on a set of prejudices, including racial prejudices that perpetuate inequality and can lock the families in the boundaries of their ‘migrant’ status for generations. Hence, children of ‘migrants’ are continued to be seen by some members of society as migrants as well despite being born in the country or having lived there for most of their lives, thus reinforcing cultural alienation and inequality. Further, the continuity of colonialist discourse fuels dehumanisation of migrants. Read through this lens of colonialism, Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China offers a unique experience of sieving through the questions of migration, acceptance, domination and hybridity in the body of a chimera, a creature of fantasy. The book keeps asking the readers to re-evaluate the ideas of power and possession, speech and silence. Who colonised who, are humans nothing but the former beasts who have conquered the land and re-written its history? Who has the right of speech? Is silence a way of telling a story by the marginalised (beasts)? The entwined story of memory and oblivion for monsters and humans in Strange Beasts of China turns the narrative into a battlefield of falsifiable identities and historical assumptions. “This vast city, the beasts that come and go, all of this, is a secret,” muses Yan Ge’s narrator. “No one knows why they come or why they go, why they meet or why they leave. These are all enormous, distant mysteries [2]”. Yan Ge’s Yong’an is a postcolonial space where the story of subjugation of the beasts, or the struggle for de/re-territorialisation is already part of history, and the question that haunts both humans and beasts is the same that haunts in our day and time: how the interdependence of colonisers and the colonised has shaped – and continues shaping – our understanding of the world [3].

Continue reading “Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China”

Vector editors at COP26

Vector editors are bringing their Communicating Climate Risk: A Toolkit to COP26 in Glasgow. You can register here to watch Jo Lindsay Walton at the launch, live-streamed from the Science Pavilion. We talk about science fiction in a chapter on communicating around the tipping points.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Communicating Climate Risk: A Toolkit written by Vector editors, Jo Lindsay Walton and Polina Levontin.

From the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

The many emotions of apocalypse

The science of tipping points can lend itself to apocalyptic storytelling. What are some of the pros and cons?

“Are you getting this on camera, that this tornado just came and erased the Hollywood sign? The Hollywood sign is gone, it’s just shredded.”

— Character in The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

From the perspective of climate risk communication, tipping points can be associated with apocalyptic and cataclysmic narratives. The tipping points session at the COP26 Universities Network Climate Risk Summit, late 2021, provides an illustration (Mackie 2021). The session opened with a slide alluding to the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow. Of course, this movie stretches science in ways that are regrettably familiar. “Scenarios that take place over a few days or weeks in the movie would actually require centuries to occur” (National Snow & Ice Data Center 2004). Nonetheless, The Day After Tomorrow does represent a real tipping element: the potential shutdown of AMOC, a large system of ocean currents that conveys warm water from the tropics northwards, which is responsible for the relative warmth of the North Hemisphere. 

Movies like The Day After Tomorrow vividly communicate the fragility of human lives — as tornadoes tear apart the Los Angeles skyline and toss cars through the air, as New Yorkers scramble down narrow streets from oncoming tsunami-like waves — in ways that are not always captured by terminology such as “extreme weather events.” In the broader context of climate action, is it useful to tug on the heartstrings in this way? Much of the literature on catastrophic narratives and climate storytelling focuses on a distinction between fear and hope. An overreliance on fear has been quite widely criticised.

[…] some studies suggest that there are better chances to engage an audience by including positive messages in film narratives about environmental risks, especially climate change, rather than adopting the strategy of fear, which would instead distance and disengage them, making them feel overwhelmed and helpless […] 

(Leal Filho et al. 2017)

However, one thing we should remember is that apocalypses are about many more emotions than fear and hope. A movie like The Day After Tomorrow showcases a range of emotions including exhilaration, confusion, companionship, desire, curiosity, anger, encounters with the sublime, and even moments of humour, both grim and sweet. As many scriptwriters will tell you, an immersive narrative needs emotional variety, or the audience will introduce variety of their own — they will daydream, feel bored, pick holes in the plot, or find their own things to laugh about. Apocalyptic hearts are full hearts: there is probably no human emotion that cannot find some niche in narratives of disaster and collapse. Indeed, the end of the world can feel alluring. The more dissatisfied people are with their existing lives, the more alluring it may feel. As the recent ASU Apocalyptic Narratives and Climate Change project describes (focusing on the US context):

From infectious disease to war, a broad swath of the public has long interpreted social and environmental crisis through the prism of apocalypse, casting potential catastrophes and their causes in religious and moral terms. These apocalyptic visions are often narrated from the point of view of the survivors (the “elect”), thus reinforcing a sense that the end times need to be survived by remaining among the elect, rather than prevented through pragmatic action. 

(CSRC 2020)

Alternatively, an apocalyptic or eschatalogical idiom can sometimes make climate change feel like nothing special. When has the world not been ending? “For at least 3,000 years, a fluctuating proportion of the world’s population has believed that the end of the world is imminent” (Garrard 2004). Insofar as apocalyptic framings feel extreme yet in a familiar way, they can be counterproductive, especially with audiences who are already wary. This includes those who are ready to view anthropogenic climate change as a left wing conspiracy (perpetrated by charlatan scientists to secure themselves power and funding, in cahoots with governments that aim to justify increasingly authoritarian, totalitarian, and unjust policies) or as a neocolonialist agenda (perpetrated by the rich countries of the world to impose new forms of domination, indebtedness, and exploitation on the Global South). 

De Meyer et al. (2021) offer an intriguing spin on the respective merits of fear, hope, and other emotions: they suggest that current debates on climate communication have exaggerated the role of emotions altogether. Instead they advocate for a focus on practice, by storytelling (and doing other things) to create spaces where new audiences can experience agency in relation to the climate, at many different scales and in many different circumstances. People should be able to see what they can do.

Here, we propose that both place-based, localized action storytelling, and practice-based action storytelling have a role to play in expanding climate agency. As examples of the latter, for creative writers and journalists the required agency would be about knowing how to make action on climate change part of their stories; for architects, how to bring climate change into building design; for teachers, how to teach about climate action within the constraints of the curriculum; for fund managers, how to bring climate risk into their investment decisions; for health professionals, to support the creation of place-based community systems that respond to the health impacts of climate change. These examples of communities of practice provide different opportunities and challenges to expand the notions of climate action beyond the current notions of consumer choice and activism.

De Meyer et al. (2021)

Let’s summarise, then, some approaches to effective climate risk communication. One approach is to focus on information. How can information be clearly expressed and tailored for users to easily incorporate it into their decision-making? A second approach (partly in response to perceived shortcomings of the first) places more emphasis on emotion. What mixture of emotions should be appealed to in order to motivate action? This focus on emotion is also implicitly a focus on moral normativity, an appeal to the heart rather than the head (there is of course a great body of literature deriding this split between reason and emotion, which in reality are always mutually entangled). More recently we are seeing the emergence of a third approach, not strictly supplanting but rather complementing the other two, which focuses on practice

The distinction between a “practice” focus vs. a focus on “informative and tailored stories” or “stories of hope not fear” is a bit subtle. Of course the three may often overlap. It may be helpful to think about what the “practice” focus means in the longer term. In the longer term, each new representational domain of climate agency will not emerge solely through hopeful portrayals of an agent (e.g. journalist, architect, teacher, fund manager) exemplifying an orthodox version of their role-specific climate action, however cognitively and affectively well-judged. Telling these stories may certainly be the priority in the short term. But what they should hope to kickstart are diverse stories filled with diverse agents, affects, and values: stories which superficially contradict each other in many ways, but whose deeper presuppositions mesh to create fields of imaginable action that can accommodate the particularity and the creativity of real people. “Environmental activist” is a social role that is available for real people to fill precisely because it can be filled in many ways (not just one way) and because it means many contradictory things (not just one thing). The same is true of the figure of the ethical consumer.

Audiences are more likely to engage with stories about the world they live in, than about who they must be in that world. Successful rapid mitigation and adaptation entails shifting to more participatory and equitable societies. Many audiences with centrist or conservative leanings may struggle to see themselves accepted within such societies. They may reject realistic climate narratives as hoaxes, or even welcome the end times: revel in fantasies of courage, ingenuity, largesse and revenge, set amid the ruins of civilisation. More can be done to create narratives that accommodate a range of self-reported aspirational virtues across the political spectrum, in ways that are cohesive with an overall just transition. Storytelling that focuses on multiplying domains of agency also entails interventions beyond representational techniques altogether, transforming the material contexts in which people seek to exercise agency.

Continue reading “Vector editors at COP26”

At My Most Beautiful: the Politics of Body Prostheses, Disability, and Replacement in Arryn Diaz’s Dresden Codak

By Jose L. Garcia

“I never asked for this.”

Adam Jensen, protagonist of the games Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, laments his cybernetic prosthetics in the first trailer for Human Revolution, replete with images of him as Icarus with burning wings, and a stylized rendering of himself as the subject in Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” all of which suggests that the use of prostheses is not only counter to the normative body, but considered a destruction of the subject.

The Deus Ex series is not unique: science fiction is replete with cyborg bodies as both the sites of destruction and reification of the normative body and “augmentation” that turn the subject into something “better,” such as with the oft-quoted Six-Million Dollar Man tagline, “We can rebuild him […] Better than he was before,” or The Bionic Woman, described as, “Better.  Faster.  Stronger.”  The cyborg subject is also applied as a divorce from one’s humanity, seen in Star Wars with Obi Wan Kenobi’s line about Darth Vader: “He’s more machine than man.”  In either case, the implication is clear: something of the original human is lost through the process of prosthesis implementation, even if is portrayed as “enhancement.”

While a number of stories complicate the idea of the cyborg, there has been (comparatively) little critical exploration of cyborg bodies in disability studies until relatively recently.  Yet, such analyses are of critical importance for understanding how the visual language of prosthesis has evolved.  At this juncture of the cyborg and disability sits Kimiko Ross, the protagonist of Arryn Diaz’s webcomic, Dresden Codak.  Ross prominently features prosthetic body parts, and the ways in which Diaz sets up scenes with Ross grab from the spectrum of cyborg subjecthood.  These range from frank dealings with images of disability, images of power and “augmentation,” and even sexuality (the latter not overt, but noticeable enough to be said to sit within that tradition of sexualized cyborg subjecthood, similar to the opening sequence to the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, which lingers on images of the naked cyborg body at several points).  The specific frames that centre on Ross’ body create a network of significations that both reifies and frustrates three aspects of a representation: the cyborg, the traumatised body, and the disabled body.  

Continue reading “At My Most Beautiful: the Politics of Body Prostheses, Disability, and Replacement in Arryn Diaz’s Dresden Codak

“The Inheritors” (1942), by the Futurians John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, and the Climate Discussion 

By Andreya S. Seiffert

Abstract: This article discusses the novelette “The Inheritors” by John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, first published in the October 1942 issue of the pulp magazine Future Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Lowndes. The article shows the story’s pioneering approach to discussing environmental issues long before this theme appeared frequently in science fiction. The hypothesis defended in this article is that this pioneering was only possible because Michel and Lowndes were part of The Futurian Society of New York. The group was a creative force that operated in the early 1940s and brought a new perspective to science fiction at the time, with the climatic discussion of “The Inheritors” being part of it.

This is the cover of the issue where the novelette was published.

Introduction 

As I write this article, the news I’m hearing this week is quite worrying: flooding in Nigeria, fires in Greece, record deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, which may now be generating more greenhouse gases than it is absorbing. A UN report reinforces what many have long known: humans are the cause of climate change, which is expected to intensify in the coming years.

Climate is a concern for many current science fiction authors, especially in the subgenre known as climate fiction or cli-fi. The purpose of this article is to show how a 1942 novelette, written by Futurians John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, anticipated this concern and brought this discussion to science fiction at the time.

Continue reading ““The Inheritors” (1942), by the Futurians John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, and the Climate Discussion “

Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937

Reviewed by Sandra Unerman. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In her introduction to this collection, Melissa Edmundson refuses to pin down a definition of the Weird. She discusses the history of the genre and considers ghost stories, Victorian Gothic and encounters with the unknown. But she places the stories chosen within a broader tradition of supernatural writing by women. As a reader, I enjoyed the mixture of flavours and moods, which results from this eclecticism, in preference to a narrow focus on one kind of tale.

The stories all convey a strong sense of place, in settings from Australia to Canada by way of the English countryside. For example, ‘The Red Bungalow’ by Bithia Mary Croker is set in Northern India, in the days of the Raj. It expresses the vulnerability and alienation experienced by British women and their children in a country that is not theirs, with a landscape and traditions they do not understand.

A sense of history is also a common characteristic. Even the stories set within the lifetime of the authors introduce the current reader to details and attitudes strange to us now, like the shirt waist and corduroy skirt suitable for young women travelling in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘The Green Bowl’. One story set further into the past is Marjory Bowen’s ‘Florence Flannery’, which provides a thoroughly unromantic depiction of a Devon manor in 1800, with a couple brought together by loneliness and poverty, who are haunted by events from three hundred years earlier. ‘The Blue Room’, by Lettice Galbraith, set in a Scottish castle, also concerns a haunting of earlier times, from the 17th century but sets characters with deliberately modern (at the time) attitudes, including a ‘clever, strong-minded young lady’ to challenge the evils of the past.

The role of women is often the focus of attention. ‘A Twin-Identity’ by Edith Stewart Drewry, is narrated by a female French police detective, who shows persistence and courage in her pursuit of a murderer, as well as the sensitivity to follow the supernatural clues she is given. Other tales take a more complex approach. In ‘Young Magic’, by Helen Simpson, Viola grows up neglected by her mother and her nursemaid but is content to play by herself, ‘exactly as a cat does’. She finds opportunities for encounters with invisible beings, which are both more satisfying than those she invents and disappointing because her contact with them is so limited. At one level, the story is about the constraints and limitations of her life as a middle-class girl, especially as she grown into adolescence. At another, it is about the power and danger of the imagination.

Some stories draw their strength from their depiction of character and setting, while others evoke the uncanny with more intensity. Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The House’ is one of the most memorable entries, as it draws the reader into the painful emotions of a young woman, and her vision of domestic bliss. For me, the supernatural element here seems almost incidental, not a significant feature of the story. By contrast, I found it difficult to sympathise with the narrator of ‘Outside the House’ by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor, a man reluctant to take advice or consider the wishes of his fiancée and her family. But the haunting of the family house from the outside struck me as both unusual and powerful, particularly in the way it engages with class conflict and industrial tragedy.

Two of the thirteen stories show familiar authors in an unexpected light. L.M. Montgomery’s ‘House Party at Smoky Island’ deals with love and jealousy in a darker mode than Anne of Green Gables, while Flora Poste of Cold Comfort Farm might not approve of the way the narrator of Stella Gibbons’s ‘Roaring Tower’ indulges her emotions. But the greater strength of the collection lies in its revival of authors who have been forgotten and I enjoyed being introduced to many of them.

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Africanfuturism: An Anthology

Africanfuturism: An Anthology edited by Wole Talabi, Brittle Paper, 2020

Includes stories by Nnedi Okorafor, T.L. Huchu, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Mame Bougouma Diene, Mazi Nwonwu, and Derek Lubangakene.

Reviewed by Alexander Buckley

With a short introduction to African science fiction by Wole Talabi, himself a Nommo Award winning writer, Africanfuturism: An Anthology contains eight stories and boundless insights into what Africanfuturism actually is, what it should look and read like. The anthology is freely available from Brittle Paper, a literary magazine established in 2010 that champions upcoming African artists and writers. The stories invite the reader to delve into imaginative futures of African societies, all of them conjuring up a range of compelling ideas, some offering novel interpretations of dystopian ways of living. 

The anthology opens strong with a short, hospitable story by T.L. Huchu, a Zimbabwean writer, known for his debut novel The Hairdresser of Harare (2010) and his many award-nominated short stories. Huchu’s “Egoli”, written in the second person, details the life of an aged Shona woman living between the past and the future in her small village; her grandson is away working as a miner in space, meanwhile, this woman uses a smartphone and finds solace in the BBC World Service on the radio. The nostalgic inspection into the past is warm and balmy, contrasted with the introspective world of tomorrow that’s slowly encroaching, attempting to sever this woman from the life she tirelessly tries to hold on to. It’s beautiful. The writing is neat and immerses the reader in this woman’s life that seems so lonely and distant from everything around her. It’s one of the most interesting and developed stories in the anthology and is a fantastic introduction for anyone interested in Africanfuturism.


The second story is “Sunrise” by Nnedi Okorafor, whose definition of Africanfuturism, a term she coined, is featured at the beginning of the anthology. Okorafor’s “Sunrise begins with a famous Nigerian-American science fiction writer being harassed while trying to board a flight with her sister. It then shifts into a narrative about the erratic uncontrollable nature of the Artificial Intelligence on her phone and the spoilt visit to her uncle’s house. The story doesn’t seem to know which way it wants to go, and the writing doesn’t help the confused nature of the storyline. The part at the beginning, about Nnedi’s self-insert being harassed by ‘Ian Scott’ who struggles to pronounce her name correctly is strong enough to be a standalone story. Everything afterwards felt tacked on and a little needless.

Ugandan filmmaker and science fiction writer Dilman Dila’s “Yat Madit” tells the story of Amaro, whose ex-president father is released from prison. Her father visits his smart, tech savant daughter to seek advice about using the voter’s online avatars to get himself re-elected. Yat Madit is the hardware that hosts everyone’s avatar and fosters interconnectedness, the nature of which remains enigmatic. The worldbuilding is very compelling, inspiring many questions about what Yat Madit is and how it works. Yat Madit means ‘a big tree.’ There are hints that a stormy family drama is buried underneath the narrative layer, but it’s unable to emerge through the text. The father tries ludic ways to reconcile with Amaro, but the back-and-forth trial does not suffice to banish the shadow of his criminal past. The writing struggles to support the plausibility of attempts to resolve the emotional conflict between Amaro and her father. “Yat Madit”’s main strength is its science fiction novum and worldbuilding. There’s a whole future happening within the story and it would have been great to explore more of the history of the avatars. This is a case where the science-fictional ideas are more interesting and involving than the emotional story they are embedded in.  This is unfortunate because the characters want to do so much and be given the same treatment as the science that is being foretold. 

Mazi Chiagozie Nwonwu is co-founder of Omenana, an essential Nigerian-produced magazine dedicated to speculative fiction from Africa and the African diaspora. Nwonwu’s “Rainmaker” is about a young boy named Bama who must perform a Raindance to bring rain to the dry, dusty planet of Arid. “Rainmaker” is a fun, short adventure story with a simple premise. It begins with an exciting encounter with ‘dust devils’ as Bama and his friend Katma are heading to school. From there, the story doesn’t let go of its sense of adventure and vision. On Arid, it’s believed that anyone who stands up to a dust devil is granted a wish. The story is wholesome and earnest. A journey on this strange arid planet is filled with bright characters and an involving mythos. Mazi Nwonwu’s writing is clear and hospitable and he serves the planet and its inhabitants to us like a tasty, filling meal. 

Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry and architectural criticism. Her work is featured in The Best of World SF (2021) edited by Lavie Tidhar, and appeared in Strange Horizons and the quarterly British magazine Wasafiri. Her story “Behind Our Irises” details the day in the life of a graphic designer working for a depressing corporate business to keep her life afloat after years of unemployment. This sinister company installs new technology into their employees, fitting holes into the back of their necks, draining them of their freedoms and exploiting them for profit. Although the company is based in and runs throughout Africa, one of the higher-ups is a “European man with a balding hairline, stocky fingers and a certain kind of confidence that intimidated me.” The various themes explored throughout the story are subtle and may not be so apparent on a first reading. Towards the end, the protagonist, against her will and quite suddenly, is forced to undergo ‘maintenance’ work on her ‘ports’. She is approached by “a man in blue coveralls that looked like a cross between a doctor and mechanic.” She tries to evade the procedure but finds she cannot move. She can’t even yell for help, and the man in blue coveralls nonchalantly takes what he came for then lets her go. This dystopian, sad, almost borderline horror short is well made and thought out. This story is a great addition to the anthology, reflecting on emerging issues in labour relationships between workers and corporations. 

Derek Lubangakene, whose work has appeared in Omenana and Strange Horizons, brings “Fort Kwame” to the anthology, named after the orbital city that suffers the consequences of a failed rebellion. Its protagonist, Jabari Asalur, “acknowledged his dread.” Fort Kwame, and the inhabitable planet it floats above, is a deep and detailed world, full of exciting science-fictional ideas and entertaining characters. Lubangakene’s exploration of this futuristic orbital city is quite an adventure. The workings of Jabari’s “thermskin” are particularly well imagined and tickle a certain sci-fi itch. “Fort Kwame” fits perfectly into the anthology. 

On her website, Rafeeat Aliyu’s describes “Fruit of the Calabash” as being “something I initially dreamed of, I recall hastily jotting down memories of the creepy dream before it faded”. In the story, Maseo fertilizes artificial wombs in her lab. The development of a fetus for the local senator doesn’t go as planned and she heeds the advice of a wise, judicious woman to help gain insight into the reason behind the fiasco. The plot develops with an urgent pace; elements of Maseo’s world are immersive and plausible, the characters are believable, the story feels like it could become a reality. It’s a delight to read and get lost in.  

Mame Bougouma Diene, whose novella Hell Freezes Over which was nominated for a Nommo Award, blends mysticism with science fiction in “Lekki Lekki”, the final story of the anthology. Huge trees contain “engines” that connect humans to a giant network of seemingly everything. Humanity had harmed nature, and now it must painfully adapt. This story conjures up interesting imagery for the mind and the story’s lyrical ecocritical otherworldliness is noteworthy. 

The anthology is a host to a range of wonders and imaginative worlds. Judging by what is contained within these digital pages, it’s regrettable that some of these writers have yet to become as widely read as their Western peers. This anthology is a brilliant introduction to Africanfuturism and hopefully its free PDF edition will attract new readers to the genre. I think it’s important that all serious fans of science fiction are conscious of the emerging talent in African science fiction. Publishers around the world should snap their stories quickly before they get beaten to it. 

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Ruby by Nina Allan

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Titan have been publishing Allan’s work since they brought out an expanded edition of The Race in 2016. This was followed by The Rift in 2017 and an updated edition of The Silver Wind in 2019. Their latest offering from her is Ruby, which was originally published as Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories in 2013. As that earlier title indicates, this book consists of a sequence of linked stories. At first, they seem to be very loosely linked––tied together only by fleeting references to the eponymous Ruby, a film star whose career ends when she is imprisoned for murder––but more connections become apparent to the reader in later stories.

Indeed, when I got to the end, I had to fight hard against an overwhelming urge to go back to the beginning again with my new knowledge and put all the events in the stories together into one coherent plotline. However, that would be the wrong reason to read these beautiful and entrancing stories again. Not only is there no overall temporal continuity but also, to the extent that these are horror stories, the horror lies in wait for those determined to keep religiously to the straight and the narrow. Morally these stories are ‘chaotic neutral’ and trying to impose order on them would at best be inviting frustration and at worst risking getting trapped in some maze-like time loop, as happens to several characters in these stories. Paradoxically, though, for those prepared to embrace the apparent unreason of time paradoxes and coincidences that unspool sinuously through these stories, potential nightmares turn into dreams of possibility.

Ruby by Nina Allan

For example, in ‘Laburnams’, Christine ‘had often wondered if it was possible to take a wrong turning and end up living a life that was not your own’ and there are lot of people in these stories trapped in lives that are not their own. In ‘Wreck of the Julia’, this condition is explicitly linked to the evasion and lying inherent to south London lower-middle-class suburbs such as Croydon and Sidcup, which are very similar to the one I grew up in. And you don’t get out of those lives by conforming to the moral parameters that structure and limit them. Therefore, escape is itself a traumatic experience that scars and is only overcome retrospectively by sensing the rightness of the new life. The protagonist of ‘Stardust’ feels ‘the change happen, a discernible click, as if a key had been twisted inside me’.

Such transformations also have little to do with free choice and that is what makes them doubly scary. One of the protagonists tries to make sense of his experiences through ‘dream science’ and ‘the idea of the subconscious as a crime writer’ throwing out as many red herrings as useful clues. But it is only by negotiating both the red herrings and the clues that he finds his way again. These stories are not merely tales of the unexpected or simple mysteries but a series of labyrinthine twists which simultaneously fold in and out on themselves to reveal unexpected perspectives and hidden views. The result of such an intricate weaving together of signs and wonders is a collection of stories that reads like a novel which you want to go on and on. So, while I didn’t immediately reread the stories, I would have been happy to have continued to lose myself within more of them for another thousand pages or so. Nevertheless, I didn’t end Ruby feeling unfulfilled because after thinking about it––and these stories do tend to embed themselves in your mind for a while––I realised that I could take the fluid mode of reading that the stories had seduced me into adopting and use it to read other stories and novels in productive ways. In this manner, Allan not only generates possibilities through her writing, but she also teaches her readers to generate possibilities through their reading.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Reviewed by Anne F. Wilson. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

“Even worthless things can become valuable once they become rare. This is the grand lesson of my life”.

Cara is a survivor. Literally. She is a traverser between 380 alternate worlds, each fractionally different from the next. But she can only travel to worlds where her alternate has already died. Only 8 of the 380 still house living versions of her. All the others have died of natural or unnatural causes. Illness, neglect, abuse, murder. This is because she is a poor child from the deprived area of Ashtown, not a protected citizen of the neighbouring city of Wiley. 

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Cara is employed by the Eldridge Institute, headed by the charismatic Adam Bosch. Alone of his alternates, Bosch discovered the technology for travelling between the worlds. Cara’s job is data mining on the different worlds. What needs to be changed to achieve a particular effect? Go to the world where it has changed. What is going to happen in the future? Go to a world which is slightly ahead in development. Because she is so rare she is valuable, in that the Institute doesn’t have to employ so many other traversers. But her time is running out, as the Institute is expecting an imminent breakthrough that will make traversers redundant.

But Cara has secrets. She isn’t supposed to bring back trophies from her visits to other worlds, but she does. She isn’t supposed to interact with the inhabitants of those worlds, or get involved in their local disputes, but she does. And it’s from these interactions with the alternates of people in her own world, with lives and relationships slightly shifted, that she starts to put together a very different picture of what is happening on her own world, and what Adam Bosch really wants.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It’s full-on science fiction, exploring that most fundamental question: “What might be changed?” Cara is a thoroughly believable character: bolshy, rough-edged, insecure. She is brutalised by her upbringing, but she’s still human. And in a world where merely surviving is the main aim, or (in Wiley), maintaining or improving one’s position, she is willing to act to improve things. 

The space between worlds isn’t just the space between the 380 worlds that Cara traverses, it’s also the space between Wiley, where she maintains a precarious existence, and Ashtown, her birthplace. It is no coincidence that the original inhabitants of Wiley are pale-skinned and fair-haired, and the Ashtowners are black and brown. “People brought for labor, or come for refuge, or who were here before the first neoliberal surveyed this land and thought to build a paradise”. It’s a dystopia, and in most of the alternate worlds things are getting worse, the gap widening between the privileged in Wiley and those outside, who are prey to brutal gangs and suffer the effects of lack of money, of healthcare, of opportunities. 

Johnson is that most excellent of things, a storyteller. I was caught up in the action and kept reading to find out what happens next. The surprises keep coming. The tight focus on Cara’s viewpoint means that the author can slide in little bits of information that turn out to be significant later. It’s always great to read a novel where what’s next is completely unexpected, and yet when it has happened you think: yes, that fits.

I liked the way that Cara develops as a character. She begins the novel as someone who is defensive and belligerent, scrambling not to lose her hard-won place in Wiley. Once she begins to find out the rules that govern her existence, Cara discovers that she can make choices, and unsurprisingly these lead her and others into danger. It is only by using the ingrained knowledge from her harsh upbringing outside Wiley that she has a chance of surviving and saving those that she cares for.

Copyright Anne F. Wilson.

Radio Life by Derek B. Miller

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Our world collapsed in chaos and war at the end of the 21st century after a solar flare disrupted information networks. Now, the Commonwealth, devoted to rescuing knowledge from the Gone World, is sending out expeditions and creating an Archive. Fifty years ago, Lilly’s discovery of the “Harrington Box” inspired a renaissance based upon the collection of books and the “Trivial Pursuits” set it contained. Lilly is now Chief Engineer of the Commonwealth, whose headquarters is a sports centre built for the Olympics. One of her projects is rebuilding technologies including a radio, on which voices from elsewhere were heard until it ceased to work. A new fuse has been found by a pair of scavengers and given to Lilly. But a tribe known as the Keepers are threatening the networks of Raiders and Explorers and Runners, and the Commonwealth itself. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Elimisha, an Archive Runner, is pursued into a building which collapses, leaving her injured and unable to escape – but in a room containing an “artificial intelligence entity” which identifies itself as a Librarian . . . and a radio.

When Elimisha’s voice is received by Lilly’s radio, another Runner, Allesandra, is sent to rescue her. Her mission is critical, because it is suspected that Elimisha has found the secret of the Ancients’ success – the Internet.

Radio Life

The joke here – it rapidly becomes clear that Lilly etc. don’t actually know what the Internet is – is certainly one of the reasons to read the book: running through it is a vein of humour which counterpoints the bleak post-apocalypse scenario without undermining a serious core: an examination of the nature and purpose of knowledge. Miller has acknowledged the influence of Walter M. Miller’s (no relation) A Canticle for Leibowitz in Radio Life. In some ways he has written a parallel to – or even a parody of – the earlier classic. (There is even a religious community, in which the telling of another joke, an old and hoary music-hall item, somehow underlines the story’s essence.) Like Leibowitz, which itself reveals a dark, even despairing joke at its core, Radio Life is about regaining knowledge, even at the cost of not fully understanding the extent and implications of that knowledge. Derek Miller distributes the hazy search for uncovering the history of this precarious society among a number of interestingly-imagined characters: Lilly, Allesandra and Elimisha, but also Henry (Henrietta) and Graham, (Allesandra’s parents), and Birch, the “Master of the Order of Silence” (one of the interesting things about the Commonwealth is the complicated web of organisations, networks and rivalries within it).

For a while, this is a standard if well-imagined and told tale of post-Apocalypse recovery. But as the complexities within the Commonwealth and its immediate history become apparent, things get deeper. A confrontation between Graham, captured by the Keepers, and the Keeper leader makes us face the question begged by too many of these fictions: are they right to want to regain the knowledge of the past? During their conversation we learn why the Keepers are called the Keepers, and what they want to keep. This is not necessarily a debate between right and wrong. The Ancients had wonderful technology. (The generic term for material scavenged and brought back is telling: “shinies”). One of the delightful “histories” of the pre-catastrophe decades uncovered by Elimisha and Allesandra is the up-until-then undiscovered treasure trove of recorded music. But the legacy of previous days also includes war, genocide, slavery, racism: “So many categories of people, all attacking other categories”. The Ancients did “awful things to each other”. Should those memories be brought back, risking shame and anger and revenge?

Or could the world be rebuilt, better? Walter M. Miller’s theology seemed to suggest not. His namesake, possibly more secular, seems to prefer otherwise. Radio Life rather slips, at the end, into hand-waving improvement, but the arguments are worth confronting.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

Fearless by Allen Stroud

Reviewed by Dev Agarwal. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Allen Stroud’s name will be well known to readers in this parish. He is currently BSFA Chair and has long been prominent in genre circles. His latest novel has been positively reviewed, including in Amazing Stories, where Ernest Lilley recommended Fearless and observed that Stroud brings “a Clarkian feel that grounds the story in the best tradition of science fiction.”

Fearless is, by flavour, not only science fiction, but specifically, space opera. Space opera, as a subgenre, has arguably two sets of defining characteristics. There is its iconography of spaceships, colony worlds, disasters, piracy and spaceship battles. However, equally important are its tonal choices of larger-than-life characters, intrigue, extravagant settings and fast-paced plotting.  Which Brian Aldiss neatly captured in his term “widescreen baroque.”

While it is fallacious to say that space opera is enjoying a renaissance (as it never went away) it is true to say that prominent names, including James S.A. Corey, Charles Stross and Ann Leckie, have boosted space opera and broadened its appeal. They built on the founding ideas of the original space opera and the popularity of the New Space Opera that came after it.  This number of books has inevitably crowded the field and the challenge for any writer is how to make their space opera stand out. 

Allen Stroud throws us into his version of the “widescreen baroque.” The novel is set in AD 2118 with habitats across the solar system (where humanity has colonised the Moon, Mars, Ceres and Europa). Fearless feels confidently New Space Opera, as it melds pyrotechnic action with ethical dilemmas and strong characterisation. This is particularly evident where Stroud challenges the male-dominated narratives of the past, to put a woman, Captain Ellisa Shann, in command of the space going vessel Khidr. Shann is one of the novel’s three first person protagonists (which also include two junior crew members, Johannson and Sellis). Shann is the most distinct of the narrators, in part because she was born without legs. Ordinarily, her story, or backstory, would include how she overcame this disability, or is defined by it.  However, Stroud has said that he “wanted to portray a disabled character in space who was not attempting to overcome her disability.” Shann’s disability is a part of her, rather than all of her.

Khidr is a rescue ship and this feels like a distinct social point that Stroud makes. He is writing space opera, and enthusiastically opening its toybox for the reader. But he is not revelling in the violence of a warship. Khidr has been described by other reviewers as analogous to the coast guard or an emergency service and its purpose ordinarily, is to assist other vessels, rather than fight. New Space Opera is able to widen the narrative to include people like Shann, physically disabled but still capable, who are in space with altruistic intentions––rather than opportunistic ones.

The Khidr’s role also allows Fearless to explore similar motivations to the work of writers like Frederick Pohl and Alistair Reynolds, who have looked at blue collar workers living in space and looking to make a living rather than warriors and world-beaters. These are the people who do the unglamourous and necessary work that often gets overlooked in the widescreen baroque.

Fearless begins with a routine emergency when Shann receives a call for help from the spaceship The Hercules. They expect to offer routine assistance, but this soon leads the crew into an attempted mutiny and Shann into a political drama that spans the colony worlds. Stroud’s use of three revolving viewpoints offers differing perspectives on the mounting crises both on and off the ship.

Space opera is well known for the speed at which tension mounts and the range of the catastrophes that its characters face. In Fearless, the plot develops fast, with all the narrative acceleration and pyrotechnic action that we might expect. The Khidr deals with an onboard murder, external attack by an unidentified spaceship, and intrigue and battles across the solar system. 

This setup gives Stroud an opportunity to turn a fresh authorial eye to a number of familiar tropes. Cliques in the space-going Fleet, hidden colony worlds and a tantalising alien manifestation dating back to Apollo 10 all appear. This makes for a story that is both a high-octane adventure and a character study for each of the three viewpoint characters.

In terms of plotting, Stroud walks the tightrope of completing the arc of his characters’ story by the final page and also setting up a sequel. He puts in motion a number of threads (starting with that alien manifestation that Apollo 10 encountered in real life) and it would have been unwise to try to neatly tie off all of these strands (and dissatisfying to the reader). By the end of the novel, the Khidr has discovered and abandoned artifacts and several political players remain unmasked and still working against the Fleet. At the same time, Stroud brings his novel to a satisfying dramatic crescendo.

Lastly, a mention for a stylistic decision that Stroud made. This is his use of present tense.  Stroud has said that this was a deliberate choice, having experimented with the form at shorter length. Ultimately, he found that present tense added more immediacy and tension to his writing. While it can be off-putting to read a long work in present tense, Fearless may just be the right place for readers to start.

And if you like Fearless, more is on its way as Stroud is currently at work on a sequel.

Copyright Dev Agarwal. All rights reserved.