Octavia Butler once said, “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” And thus, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Colour, edited by Nisi Shawl. It’s a remarkable set of stories: varieties in genre and tone and settings and characters. Some of the authors are people whose work I’ve come across a bit (E. Lily Yu, Andrea Hairston) while many others I was only vaguely familiar with – and several whom I’d not heard of before. Which is generally a good sign, in an anthology, for me anyway.
I’m not going to go over every story, because that would be boring. I want to mention a few highlights to give a sense of the range of stories.
Minsoo Kang’s “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations” hit my history-teacher heart right in the middle. I love way it’s told – as an historian or archivist finding out more and more information – and I love the story that’s told through that information, and I ADORE the ‘Marginal note’ at the end for the way it cuts through and kinda sums up a lot of what historians of marginal communities have been doing for several decades.
“Burn the Ships” by Alberto Yáñez also hit me in the heart, but for different reasons. When I read in his bio that he “draws on his Mexican and Jewish roots” to inform the story, I could absolutely see the parallels; it’s not a re-telling of a story from either of those cultures, or a combining, but… using their histories, of conflict with The Other especially, to come up with perhaps the most emotional of all the stories in the anthology. It’s just incredible.
Indrapramit Das’ “The Shadow We Cast Through Time” is a non-linear narrative that looks at the consequences of human settlement on alien planets, how societies shape themselves in response to danger – and vice versa – and the connections between people. It’s gorgeous.
“Harvest,” by Rebecca Roanhorse, is horrifying. I’ve now read a couple of stories that involve deer women, and I already know enough to never tangle with one willingly.
If you’re looking for a non-themed anthology and you want to know who’s hot right now in speculative fiction, you should pick this up.
Published by Aqueduct Press, this remarkable book is a tribute to Octavia Butler. It includes personal reminiscences; photos; a poem; a transcript of a conversation with Butler; and the bulk is made up of academic essays – most of which are also somewhat personal.
I’ve read Butler’s Xeongenesis/Lilith’s Brood trilogy, but a long time ago… and that’s about it. Maybe some short stories as well? It’s one of those cases of ‘I’ve always meant to read more…’. So it was a bit of a weird experience for me to be reading academic analyses of stories that I haven’t read. However, and all kudos to the authors, I was neither hampered by that lack of knowledge – they all explained their points exceptionally well – and nor was I put off reading those stories. I have in fact bought the Parables books and am exceedingly excited to read them, armed with the theoretical discussions from these essays. I’m honestly not sure whether I will read Kindred, and I know this is a privileged position as a white Australian. I will definitely read Fledgling at some point, for all Butler was apparently a bit embarrassed by her vampire fiction. What I loved about the essays presented here is that each author so clearly loved the work they were examining – not glossing over faults, but showing how rich and subversive and powerful and present-speaking and future-prescient they are. How remarkable the women are, and how different the relationships, and how challenging the suggestions of how society could be. It made me realise just how powerful an author Octavia Butler must have been.
This is all beautifully resonant with the personal reflections included throughout. Butler’s shyness and insecurity and amazing generosity all come through, emphasising the sheer humanity of the woman – which I know sounds ridiculous, but it sounds like she made her life so full, and extended that to people around her, despite problems. The transcript of Nisi Shawl’s conversation with Butler, at the Black to the Future Conference in 2004, made me jealous of the people who got to see it live; Nnedi Okorafor’s reflections on sending emails to Butler – even after she died – and Steven Barnes’ very heartfelt reflections on his friend and mentor feel like precious gifts we should be thankful to have in print, so that we can glimpse those connections.
Strange Matings is a magnificent tribute to Octavia Butler that clearly works for someone with very little knowledge of her work, and must also work for those who’ve read far more. It’s provocative and powerful and human. Just like Octavia Butler.
When I finished reading the first story in Mothership, a little voice in my head said “Was that really the story to start this anthology with? I mean, sure it’s got a black protagonist, but is that enough?”
And then the rest of me took a step back, looked horrified, and said: “Have you learned nothing from Pam Noles’ essay “Shame”? And from the entire Kaleidoscope project? The story has a black protagonist. That’s entirely the point.”
And then I sat, aghast at my own white ignorance, and felt ashamed.
And then I kept reading, because that’s the obvious way to combat such an attitude and is at least part of the point of this project and why I supported its production.
There’s a really wide variety of fiction in this anthology. Some skirt the edge of being ‘speculative’ (Rabih Alameddine’s “The Half-Wall”) while others hurtle over the edge and throw themselves at it. I didn’t click with every story (Greg Tate’s “Angels + Cannibals Unite” really didn’t work for me, and nor did Ran Walker’s “The Voyeur”), but many of them were absolutely breathtaking.
Nisi Shawl’s “Good Boy” – one of the only stories that really qualifies for the ‘mothership’ appellation by being set in space – is a glorious fun romp.
“The Aphotic Ghost”, by Carlos Hernandez, did not go where I was expecting and was utterly absorbing.
SP Somtow’s “The Pavilion of Frozen Women” has a wonderful line in bringing together several quite disparate cultures and tying them together into a fairly creepy thriller.
NK Jemisin does intriguing things with the notion of online communities in “Too many yesterdays, not enough tomorrows.”
“Life-Pod” is Vandana Singh’s haunting reflection on family and identity and connection.
In “Between Islands,” Jaymee Goh suggests how different things might have been for the British in colonising Melaka and surrounds with different technology…
Tenea D Johnson’s “The Taken” is a profound reflection on contemporary issues and problems stemming from the historical transportation of enslaved African to America… I don’t even inhabit the culture that’s dealing with it.
One of the intriguing things about this anthology is that it’s not focussed on African-American fiction, which I had basically expected thanks to the title’s reference to P Funk and Afrofuturism. Instead, there are stories here that draw on Egyptian, Native American, Caribbean (I think? I’m Australian, sorry!!), Japanese and Malaysian (again, I think) traditions and cultures – and those are just the ones that I (think I) could identify. There are definitely others that draw on other Asian cultures (I think there’s an Indonesian one?). The author bios don’t universally identify where the authors are from, so that doesn’t assist in figuring out what might have influenced them… which is not a complaint, by the way, because so what? (in the most prosaic ‘fiction is fiction’ sense). So it’s a really broad understanding of what falls into “Tales from Afrofuturism and beyond” – much more inclusive therefore than, for example, many anthologies of the last few years, let alone decades.
This is an good anthology, period. That it’s exploring and accomplishing a particular political aim is icing on the cake. You can get it from Fishpond!