Sci-Fi vs Fantasy

Recently you may have noticed I’ve not been posting a lot, there are a few reasons for that. First of all I’ve started my masters course in creative writing, which is taking up a whole lotta time. Second I moved house, which basically means I’ve been reorganising my whole personal library (I have a tiny bookshelf just for my SF now I love it). And finally, I’ve not actually been reading that much SF.

Some SF

I spent about a month reading Jen Williams’ The Iron Ghost (review to come) and basically throwing myself into the world of fantasy a whole lot more, for a multitude of reasons but mostly because I feel way more comfortable with fantasy. For those of you that don’t know discovering SF was a fairly recent thing for me; About two years ago I took a module on SF literature and fell in love with John Wyndham, but for most of my life I’ve loved fantasy. My first favourite books were about witches, I had a healthy Harry Potter phase (though it’s yet to end) and I love nothing more than tucking into a new fantasy YA series. Though I love reading and studying SF it’s not really a comfort zone for me.

That’s not to say SF hasn’t always been a part of my life in some way, most nights I fell asleep to the sounds of Forbidden Planet, rainy days on holiday were dedicated to Star Trek and my dad’s classic SF box set. SF has always been there, but it’s not always been my focus. Part of why I set this blog up is so I’d read more SF and so I could get down my thoughts and feelings on it.

What’s changed recently is that I’ve started a new project. I might be a writing student but I have yet to ever finish writing anything novel length, but this summer I started writing a fantasy piece that I think could make it to a decent length and even be decent itself. But I hit a wall, as most writers do, and I realised that for all my fantasy knowledge I’m not that good at writing it.

Some fantasy

For years I’ve written in an environment that celebrates new and innovative thinking. I’ve studied SF, horror, weird fiction, poetry, even crime (which I hate), but I’ve never really studied fantasy. And though no tutor has ever told me this, I always felt like in academia fantasy was seen as overdone. Yes we studied the classics a bit, we looked at Ovid I’ve read some Chaucer and Beowulf but we never looked at the modern fantasy genres that came from that.

As I’m saying this I realise I’m lying, we did study some fantasy in my Cultures of Childhood module, but we looked at it as, primarily, something childish. At a time when I was struggling to show how grown up and mature I was this wasn’t the best message for me to start over analyzing. For a couple years I’ve proudly said that I only like Game of Thrones for the writing, that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was only picked up because it was set in York (where I studied), and that my fantasy YA series were just a hidden guilty pleasure. I still have yet to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy because I keep telling myself I’m not a real SF fan if I read Tolkien before I read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Yes I love these books, no I’m not ashamed!

If you have read this far into my whinging you’re probably wondering why the hell I’m complaining and what I’m so upset about. And in reality there’s nothing to be upset about. There’s a reason SF and fantasy get lumped together in Waterstones, it’s because people who like one will most likely enjoy the other. They’re both genres of wonder and intrigue and imagination. They’re genres multiple writers cross and blend and stitch together to make something amazing.

But there’s still something that irks me; Whenever I tell people “I like science fiction AND fantasy” somehow fantasy gets lost in translation. I can only assume this is because we’re all so naturally attuned to fantasy from fairy tales, Disney films, and children’s books that we just see it as part of the furniture now. I think we forget when we’re sitting on sofas and putting our books on shelves that someone had to make that furniture and that we chose to put it there.

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‘Afrofuturism’ – Ytasha L. Womack

I came across the concept of afrofuturism and Womack’s book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture in an early episode of the Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast. Before this book I knew almost nothing about black writers in SF, and I still

img_2284
I love my Uhura bookmark

haven’t read much; I’ve read a little Octavia E Butler, some Nnedi Okorafor, I own one of Samuel R Delaney’s books, and I hadn’t heard of N.K Jemisin until she won her Hugo awards. Despite my limited knowledge I was interested, so I bought Afrofuturism and read it in two days, and I am fully dedicated to becoming more afrofuture-literate! If you need a way to beef up your TBR this book is the way to go, I have more books than ever that I want to read.

Womack’s book covers everything from art to music to literature to myths to history to science to explore this beautiful space in speculative fiction that black culture has carved out and reclaimed for themselves. I realise that up until this point I’ve not really explained what afrofuturism is, but really Womack tells you it all in her title; Afrofuturism is the world of black sci-fi and fantasy culture and it is amazing. Much like the collection of Chinese SF Invisible Planets that I recently reviewed, most afrofuturism has its roots in cultural heritage and myths in a way that makes it distinctive, in my experience Nnedi Okorafor is a great example of this.

img_2172However, afrofuturism isn’t just about speaking back to cultural heritage. Part of it is just about representation, we all know the story about Nichelle Nichols starring as Uhura on Star Trek snowballing into multiple careers being inspired. But it’s not always just about diverse characters either, it’s about diverse artists who aren’t always trying to make a political statement. For example here’s Butler talking about her short story ‘ Bloodchild’: “It amazes me that some people have seen “Bloodchild” as a story of slavery. It isn’t. It’s a number of other things, though.”

Though I’ve not mentioned this before, Butler didn’t get mentioned in my SF module at university. Butler was nowhere to be found when I traipsed through Hay-on-Wye for a weekend looking for secondhand SF. Butler didn’t come up when I checked the SF section at my library. Do you want to know how I found Butler? I got frustrated and googled black science fiction writers. This is why afrofuturism is important, I had to actively seek out SF that wasn’t white, and I’ve had to hunt for every scrap of diversity I’ve found since. Thanks to Womack I don’t have to seek it out any more, I have a map to find the diversity I crave.

‘Invisible Planets’ – Edited by Ken Liu

To give me some inspiration for my short fiction assessment for uni (obviously I wrote SF) I decided to read an SF collection and decided to read Invisible PlanetsInvisible Planets is a collection of short fiction from Chinese SF writers, collected, translated, and edited by Ken Liu. I had been looking forward to reading this for a while, so here comes the review.

img_2256This collection was a bit all over the place for me, in all honesty I didn’t like most of the stories chosen for this collection. But I think that’s a good thing, this collection isn’t pandering to what we already know, it’s a taste test of Chinese SF and now I know what writers I like and what sort of stuff to seek out in the future, so really it’s worth a read just for that.

The first author I found in the collection that really spoke to me was Xia Jia, whose pieces in the collection were ‘Tongtong’s Summer’ and ‘Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse’. Both stories are about robots, so obviously they appealed to me there, but Xia’s style was what really made them stand out. They were beautifully written stories and I came out of them feeling fulfilled and happy. I read a lot of very depressing SF so feeling happy after reading these stories was something entirely new and I loved it.

The second author, Hao Jingfang, wrote ‘Folding Beijing’ another beautiful story that really tugged at my heartstrings. This story follows a man smuggling love letters through the various levels of Beijing that fold over one another and take turns getting daylight with the working classes in the third level and the rich in the first. This was massively character driven, there’s no answers, no revolution, no solution to this disturbing world, but the characters are just wonderful and so real.

The collection ends with three short essays on Chinese SF that explore the influence of China’s culture and history on SF and where it fits in the canon. Honestly, it was amazing just to get a taste of something different. Every SF fan should read this book, you might find a couple new writers you love that you’d have never found otherwise.

‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ – Ted Chiang

I am currently taking a module in writing short fiction, and though we have some excellent set texts I wanted to branch out a little and read more SF, so having loved the film Arrival, I picked up Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Honestly I have some very mixed feelings about it, as is usual with a collection I suppose, not every story will be 100% to anyone’s liking, but instead of talking about each individual story, or even the ones I liked I want to try a different approach and talk about the collection as a single entity.

img_2253.jpgThe collection kicks off with a story about the Tower of Babylon. This was a bit of a shocker to me as I went into this collection expecting solely SF, nothing too religious, but religious themes crop up throughout the collection sitting comfortably alongside mathematics and physics. Though I didn’t enjoy these stories quite as much as the solid SF I really did enjoy reading them. One story in which angelic visitation is the equivalent of a natural disaster seemed reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which (though I might be reading into it a tad) seemed like a lovely literary reference. What struck me though was that between the Tower of Babylon, angels, and even Golems the religious aspects seemed to take on more of an old testament spin. Just like the old testament they were steeped in violence and fire and brimstone but told almost clinically which brings me to Chiang’s writing style.

Almost all the stories had a cold, almost distant narrator whether that be an omniscient third person narrator or a focalised third person, they read much in the language of science. For me this added a layer of tension to the stories. Chiang gives us mind boggling and often terrifying ideas with the cool calm of Brian Cox in a BBC2 documentary telling us that matter doesn’t exist. The tension this creates is not a tension within the story itself, but more a tension between reader and narrator. I felt myself at odds with a previously suicidal man feeling almost nothing whilst trying to help his currently suicidal wife after her mathematical discovery discredits mathematics entirely, and reading about it made me feel wretched in so many ways that I could almost feel Chiang toying with my feelings through the page. It felt as though he had made the act of reading the story a whole layer of the story in itself. And like all the greats he made it seem so effortless.

What he also made effortless, was the science itself. In Story of Your Life (later to become the film Arrival) there was a monumental amount of physics that needed explaining to the reader, but Chiang managed to explain it with such skill that I found the heavy science was no barrier. The idea that writers can’t explain the science sufficiently is what puts people off SF in my opinion, but Chiang would dispel their fears immediately. I wouldn’t say I’m smarter for reading this book, but I certainly feel as if I am! If not in terms of physics, then at least I have learned what a beautifully crafted story really looks like.

‘The Copper Promise’ – Jen Williams

I know that in my last post I said I wouldn’t be writing on fantasy any more, I read it a lot more than SF after all and it will mean more reviews and more time. But I honestly can’t help myself, fantasy is such a big part of my life and my reading habits and I cannot stop thinking about Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise. So here goes.

img_2248The Copper Promise follows Wydrin of Crosshaven, Sir Sebastian, and Lord Frith as they delve into the forbidden citadel, a prison of the old gods. Of course this ends in them releasing an old god and eventually having to try and fix their mistake. All this happens whilst Sebastian struggles with his allegiance, Frith fights to regain his father’s seat of power, and whilst Wydrin gets up to some wild shenanigans. You will learn as this review goes on that I absolutely adore Wydrin as a character.

Though this book was a sort of sword and sorcery book there wasn’t the usual linear quest narrative which I quite liked. The quest the characters embark on ends in the first few chapters and the rest of the book is them dealing with the fallout (the fallout takes the form of an all-powerful dragon goddess and her army of her lizard children who mercilessly kill anyone they come across), which I found way more interesting.

The only thing I found a bit strange was the fact that the characters all split off for part of the book. Now the book itself is actually four novellas joined together, so the narrative isn’t entirely cohesive, but it seemed to tangent off and follow the individual characters in their own strange stories. Frith and Sebastian’s stories eventually related to the entire arc but Wydrin’s wasn’t really looked at again so I’m hoping her backstory is explored a little more in the second book; The Iron Ghost. 

I don’t really want to give much away but there is a subplot that involves an LGBTQ character and it’s so much more realistic and so much more satisfying than the usual LGBTQ fantasy story line. There’s not much more to say without giving anything away and though I usually post spoiler free reviews I would be really disappointed if I’d known all the twists and turns before I read this book.

This book honestly reminded me why I love fantasy so much, it’s the same feeling as slipping on a warm, worn jumper and drinking your favourite tea. This book was like coming home, and any fantasy fan would love it as much as I did I guarantee.

 

‘Home’ – Nnedi Okorafor

So I finally set aside a little time to do some non-uni reading and managed to read Home the second installment in Okorafor’s Binti series (I believe it’s going to be a trilogy but I’m not 100%). On a side note because uni is getting on top of me I’ll only be reviewing SF here on my blog rather than SF and fantasy. If you want to read my thoughts on literally every book I read – though I can’t see why you would – hit me up on my Goodreads and add me as a friend.

homeOkay so back to Binti and why she is quickly becoming an SF character I can’t keep out of my mind. As you know I loved Binti  and devoured it almost entirely. I loved the motif of her hair and her whole struggle with her identity, and those ideas have been artfully expanded by Okorafor in Home. In this novella Binti returns home with her newly acquired Meduse companion and her new tentacle like braids in place of her former (I imagine) beautiful hair. But it is during her return that she realises she is even more at odds with her family and finds a new family in her hidden heritage from a neighbouring tribe who accept her, whilst another neighbouring tribe begins rallying against her new alien bud. That’s basically the whole plot right there, it’s short but that’s what you get out of a novella.

What I really loved about this one was the discovery of Binti’s dual identity. As someone who is mixed race myself it is difficult to find my own struggles with identity reflected in literature, but there it was embracing me and telling me it was all okay. Not that I think the enjoyment of this novel is restricted to those struggling with racial identity, everyone struggles of course, but my struggles don’t get talked about often so I got a little giddy reading it. There is no definite answer to Binti’s struggle of identity throughout the series so far and I really admire that, there is no answer, harbouring dual identities is an ever-lasting life-long tug of war, and it’s presented beautifully here.

Another thing that blew me away about Home was that Binti’s spiritual connection with her mathematical studies and her number-loving induced “treeing” was explained so much better! In Binti it felt like an odd fact just thrown in as an attempt to add some subplot, but in Home the whole concept is really fleshed out and I really felt something. I’m not sure what I felt, but let’s say it was warm and fuzzy enough to keep me reading well into the night.

The final thing I want to address is the pacing of Home. Although it didn’t occur to me when reading Binti upon reflection I realised that the pacing was a little off. We weren’t given enough time to really connect with characters before tragedy befell them, and everything seemed rushed. This might be some biased judgement on my part as I do think it should have been a full novel but there you go. In Home thought Okorafor seemed to really hit her stride with her pacing and even when things did start to move too fast the characters acknowledged with a kind of fear that things were going too fast and that they were disorientated, which really helped deal with the shorter form.

Honestly, as much as I loved Binti, I feel like Home is where the story really comes together and I can’t see why it won no awards when its predecessor got a Hugo AND a Nebula. But what I really want to say is if you were in any way disappointed with the first book because of any reasons I outlined, know that it seems to be a series that really picks up as it goes along.

‘Manifest Destiny’ – Barry B. Longyear

So I finally started to read the pile of books my father lent me, and I started with Manifest Destiny by Barry B Longyear. I started with this one because my father wanted it back, no other reason. So considering I basically had a deadline to read it and it wasn’t the first of the books I’d have chosen I found it absolutely brilliant to read. It had four main stories and some framing narrative of humanity deciding on where to attack and how to fulfill their manifest destiny throughout the universe. In the sense of humanity being excessively entitled and greedy it was startlingly realistic (I don’t even care that I’m throwing shade at my own species here, we’re horrible basically). I’m going to review each story individually with some short reviews. I usually wouldn’t do this with a collection but there’s only four stories so why not.

SPOILERS AHEAD

 

The Jaren – So in ‘The Jaren’ an alien servant of a human real estate agent tells the story of his youth and how he and five friends with a deep spiritual bond joined the army to fight against the humans. The story culminates with the alien’s friends all dying on the spot of land that the human is trying to sell and the story moves him so much that he doesn’t sell the land.

Though I wasn’t a big fan of the military element of the story I loved the sentimentality of it. I started the collection obviously thinking that it would be humans fucking shit up, but found that it was more about the small individual experiences that undercut the idea of manifest destiny as a concept. In that sense I felt the story set up the rest of the collection very well but other than that I didn’t really feel much about this story either way.

img_2160Enemy Mine – Now this is the real crowning glory of the collection (it was also made into a film of the same name that I have yet to watch). This story follows a human and a drac (bipedal reptilian alien) who after a battle end up stranded together on an uninhabited planet with a hostile environment. They learn each others languages and start to understand each others cultures and work together to survive. The drac becomes pregnant as they reproduce asexually and dies in childbirth leaving the human to raise the child. Of course the human becomes attached, but has promised to return the child to their home planet. Eventually they are rescued and separated and eventually reunited. But both have become so alienated to their own way of life and their species war that – along with some of the child’s family – they return to populate the hostile planet once more.

Now honestly, this blew me away. There are beautiful sections in which the two are clumsily learning how to communicate that shows Longyear as a real artist with a real understanding of how language works. It really is phenomenal. But what really struck me about this was the fact that they return to populate the planet. I do not read a lot of these kind of shipwreck narratives (after having been warned off of Robinson Crusoe so aggressively) but I loved the idea of becoming to distanced from the world that you can’t assimilate yourself. I love the idea of realising your enemy is so like you that you simply cannot return to war with them. It was just a beautiful piece and I can entirely understand why this was the one to be adapted.

Savage Planet – Now this one was a little strange. Humans have colonised a planet inhabited by horse/centaur (I think?) like aliens. All these aliens are born female and the dominant ones become male. They attend the university set up by humans to educate them but the struggle for academic dominance renders them impotent. Their tutor discovers this is essentially humanity’s way of killing the entire species to gain access to the planet’s natural resources. Eventually the “savage” aliens set up their own government so they can legally be seen as civilised and take true ownership of their planet.

Honestly, although ‘Enemy Mine’ struck me in a more emotional sense ‘Savage Planet’ got me for the sheer genius of it. How genius to think up a race that could be killed by education only for them to come up against a race that sees the educated mind as civilised and has a history of “dealing” with the natives in sick ways. How brilliant does a mind have to be to think up something so wonderful and horrific all at once? It has to be as brilliant as Barry B Longyear’s mind, obviously.

img_2159USE Force – Basically a guy enlists in the army, gets captured and put in a POW camp and stages a mutiny (is it mutiny if it’s not at sea?) against his superior officer whilst in the prison. And honestly, I cannot for the life of me remember how it ends.

I won’t lie this was my least favourite of the stories. As I mentioned when reflecting on ‘The Jaren’ I am not a fan of military SF I just don’t enjoy it. Nothing about it appeals to me, and USE Force was military SF in it’s purist form. I did enjoy the characters and their developments and interactions with each other, so I can assume this is probably a pretty good example of its subgenre. But it really wasn’t for me, as evidenced by me forgetting how it ends (I am quite embarrassed).

 

All in all I really loved this book, I honestly haven’t read a lot of books with aliens. I usually credit Octavia E Butler with creating my favourite aliens (in her Xenogenesis series) but Longyear is definitely a close second.

‘The Power’ – Review

I picked up Naomi Alderman’s The Power, having heard a little bit about the concept and thinking it would be an interesting read about gender, but it was so much more than that. The Power shows a world where women have power, a physical power that surpasses any male strength; they can shoot bolts of electricity from their hands. It img_2113sounds ridiculous, and I thought it would be, I thought it would be a fun read, or at least one loaded with feminist theory which is fun for a feminist literature student. It wasn’t ridiculous. It was a fun read to start off with, it was satisfying, even cathartic to see women take back control, and it was steeped in feminist theory just as I had thought. But it doesn’t take long for the tenuous equality in this fictional world to flip on its head. Soon enough we see men forced to have a female guardian with them in public, we see once powerful mobsters raped and brutalised by strange women, we see men abused and taken advantage of, and we see women start to demean, victim blame, and dismiss men. All of this begs the question; is sexism a matter of gender or just pure power? And cruelly Naomi doesn’t answer the question but leaves the reader quaking with a deep fear and questioning the morals of the human race, just as I am as I write this review.

The book follows four characters main characters; Roxy, the daughter of a mobster who works for her father after realising she has the power; Margot, the mayor of a town with a daughter unable to control her power fully (though Margot can); Allie, the girl who escapes her abusive foster home and starts a new faith; and Tunde, the only male main character, a journalist who documents the various uprisings and disruptions around him. Though these characters do eventually come together in one way or another, their stories remain their own and the small intricacies of each story and each character helps create a world that is so undeniably real I found myself guided unknowingly to whatever it was Alderman wanted me to feel.

img_2112As well as wonderful characters and believable plot, the story has other elements of dark reality. Illustrations of cryptic historical findings punctuate the novel, giving an idea of female power stretching back throughout time, giving a sense of inevitability to the novel. This inevitability is only strengthened by the brief, but powerful, framing narrative that I won’t give away too much about.

There are a few strands of the story that worried me at first; there was a prominent men’s rights activist group that featured throughout the novel and I was worried it was going to take a dark turn I wouldn’t be comfortable with (this blog is in no way unbiased, groups like this make me worry for the fate of humanity). But Alderman manages to find a middle ground, teasing her way between two extreme gender ideals and focusing on the humanity of the stories that bind them together to the point where this book isn’t taking a side, merely presenting an idea.

I picked up this book just to see what kind of SF could break the barrier into the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I found myself reading a deeply political, relevant piece that could even rival Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as one of the best feminist SF pieces I’ve read in years.

Seriously, read this book. You will not be disappointed.

‘A Closed and Common Orbit’ – Review

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I absolutely loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and had high hopes for A Closed and Common Orbit. It didn’t exactly meet my expectations, but it was a nice read nonetheless.

img_2087Common Orbit picks up at the end of the previous book, following two minor characters: Pepper a human mechanic/tech genius, and Lovelace the Wayfarer’s AI in an illegal body posing as a person. Whilst Lovelace’s chapters are present day showing her adjusting to her new body and environment, Pepper’s show her past as a cloned child labourer who escapes and is raised by an AI in a scrapyard. The only problem is that that’s it. Small, Angry Planet had a number of different interwoven plots that created a tapestry of space ships, aliens, lesbians, and lesbian aliens (I had a clear favourite plot), but Common Orbit had none of that complexity.

Despite the slowness of the book it was a fun read at least. But that proved to be another problem for me. Chambers promised to explore clone slavery and AI ethics all in one book and somehow managed multiple chapters on tattoos but very little on ethics, and when the ethics were mentioned it wasn’t a subtle affair. I love a good discussion on robot ethics but I don’t enjoy having it wedged in amongst some awkward dialogue and dull plot.

I feel as though I’m complaining a lot about a book I finished and would have been fine if not for its predecessor being so impressive. Common Orbit falls so short of Small, Angry Planet, and knowing that Chambers could do better just made it all the worse.

‘Annihilation’ – Review

I’m a bit late to the party with Annihilation, but it’s still a damn good party. Except by “good party” I mean “terrifying uncanny nightmare”. It has been a long time since a book has scared me this much, mostly because I avoid horror, and I thought SF was a safe space where nothing was strike fear into me. Somehow VanderMeer sullied my safe space and made me enjoy being scared.

SPOILERS AHEAD

img_2068Annihilation follows a team of nameless specialists in various fields as they adventure into Area X, a strange portion of land where questionable things seem to happen and where multiple missions have ended in disaster. Sent off with partial information and mistrust in her team the biologist recounts the events of their expedition as best she can with limited knowledge. A lot of the fear in this book relies on limitations, the limitation of the narrative, the limitation of identity, and the limitation of human understanding.

Thankfully not all the fear relies on limits or we wouldn’t really have enough information to be scared, VanderMeer artfully lets through just enough snippets to make an almost tangible thought before snatching it away again. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I also want to list some things that really messed me up from this book:

  • The most recent expedition returned alive, but not quite themselves (spooky)
  • Something just howls every night, just howling in the dark
  • Creepy lighthouse
  • Spores, spores everywhere, is it even safe to breathe
  • Eyes, I cannot handle eyes
  • Some very disturbing wounds
  • Some unnervingly Freudian spaces (lighthouse included)
  • A deceptively bright and fun cover

If you have any problems with any of these things, I am downplaying it. I have a beloved children’s’ film I can’t watch again just because it has a lighthouse. Noises at night scare me. If my partner doesn’t focus their eyes quickly enough for my liking I become convinced some terrifying stuff is about to happen. This has gone from review to therapy session pretty fast so let’s get back to the book.

The beginning of the book was a little slow as the writing style seemed to put me off at first. The biologist is a scientific narrator, obviously, and though it works well to have a slight emotional disconnection in the story, I found it difficult to lose myself into the story because of it.  Once I got past my own emotional hang ups (and once the story got a bit more emotive I’ll admit) I really started to get into it. I’m excited and a little scared to read the next instalment, which from what I can tell follows another character and is much longer, so hopefully a change in narrative will endear me to it more.