Horror Review: “Let’s Play White” by Chesya Burke

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Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke was one of the short horror/dark fantasy collections I grabbed after researching Black Speculative Fiction Month last October.

From the publisher, Apex Book Company:

Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke builds dark fantasy and horror short stories on African and African American history and legend, playing with what it means to be human.

White brings with it dreams of respect, of wealth, of simply being treated as a human being. It’s the one thing Walter will never be. But what if he could play white, the way so many others seem to do? Would it bring him privilege or simply deny the pain? The title story in this collection asks those questions, and then moves on to challenge notions of race, privilege, personal choice, and even life and death with equal vigor.

From the spectrum spanning despair and hope in “What She Saw When They Flew Away” to the stark weave of personal struggles in “Chocolate Park,” Let’s Play White speaks with the voices of the overlooked and unheard. “I Make People Do Bad Things” shines a metaphysical light on Harlem’s most notorious historical madame, and then, with a deft twist into melancholic humor, “Cue: Change” brings a zombie-esque apocalypse, possibly for the betterment of all mankind.

Gritty and sublime, the stories of Let’s Play White feature real people facing the worlds they’re given, bringing out the best and the worst of what it means to be human. If you’re ready to slip into someone else’s skin for a while, then it’s time to come play white.

 

And it is all it is cracked up to be. I enjoyed Let’s Play White so much that I couldn’t put it down, even when I knew it meant I wasn’t going to sleep. None of these stories is scary in a gory or violent kind of way, not really, although there is some of each peppered through the pages. What makes Burke’s collection so frightening is how human it is. The scariest parts of these stories are not the supernatural elements, but the human reactions to the supernatural. If you’ve ever wondered who you can trust in a changing world, the answer in Burke’s world is no one, except yourself, and even then you must be careful.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of horror, and what makes a story scary, ever since I started reading the genre in earnest. And I think there is something about being “The Other” that is terrifying, on an existential level. This is why, I feel, the best horror of our generation is being written by Othered people: women, people of colour, LGBTQ writers, etc. People who write from the fringes of their society (this shifts depending on the society, of course) Burke does a wonderful job of illustrating this kind of fear, what I consider the real horror of the human condition, in her collection of short stories.

All of this comes to a head in the finale story, “The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason,” the longest in the book, and certainly the most haunting. “The Teachings…” follows the titular character, a Hoo Doo woman who finds her way to Colored Town, Kentucky to save two young girls that might follow in her footsteps. The horror of “modern day” Colored Town in contrast to the Underground Railroad of slavery from a few generations earlier is an excellent reflection on the vulnerability of marginalized people in North America today. And you won’t be able to shake some of these images, I promise you.

Chesya Burke is a writer to follow, not just for the horror/dark fantasy crowds, but for anyone looking to slip into another person’s skin (and for some, to really feel what it is to be The Other) even for a little while. Her characters are deep, true, and wonderfully, unapologetically  human. She’s written some of my favourite women protagonists in a long time. Check her out!

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“22XX: Escape Velocity” by Jelani Wilson

Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday!

FFF is a weekly feature to encourage readers to get into flash and short fiction. I’ll be using FFF to share some of my own short stories, and also to highlight the writing of other authors, new and established, who are looking to expand their audience. If you are a reader, please leave feedback! If you are an author, please contact me if you have a short story you’d like to see on “Sarah Does Sci-Fi.”

“22XX: Escape Velocity” by Jelani Wilson

They say it’s bad luck to be born on the dark side of the Moon. According to legend, it dooms you to die in space. I never really believed it even though people have been telling me that since I was little. I can’t help but wonder if that’s why I ended up where I am now, floating out here in space in a stolen shuttle with my best friend and my nanotech professor.

The good news is we’re on our way to Europa. We’ll be safe there. The bad news is space is fucking huge. Nothing like those vintage space operas where you can zip across galaxies between commercial breaks and extended monologues.

As if on cue, my best friend, Herb, ducks into the cockpit, his chubby face sagging, glum, and burned-out. Even his cybernetic optics manage look a little dim. He’s a much better prodigy than I am. He’s only in this mess because he got roped into the calamity I caused by choosing the wrong research to ‘revise’.

He yawns, his spiky hair wilting. “Thrusters are charged and ready.”

Professor Tsai scoots out from under the communications terminal. “Good, you two should get suited up.”

Herb motions to me as he leads the way down the cramped passage. The vacuum suits are racked behind the bunks. As the name implies, they keep you alive in space. The helmet has built-in phytoplankton air filters, emits a full-spectrum distress signal, and shields you from meteoroids and cosmic radiation – all while pumping you with enough survival meds to keep you alive for up 2500 standardized hours.

It’s honestly better to die. You’ll either be insane, in a coma, or maybe both after floating that long in the void.

Yo, you all right, Sasha?” Herb asks me as he puts on his helmet and clicks on the intercom.

Yeah, I just don’t like space travel,” I reply, my voice washed in static. “And there’s so much to think about. Even if we get to Europa, what are the chances of us ever being able to…

Go home again, finish school, have our lives back, and all that bullshit?” he says with a flippant yawn.

Well, uh, yeah...?”

He shakes his head at me like I’m an idiot and laughs. “Seriously, Sasha? Don’t you get it? We’re free! We’re finally fucking free!

Not what I was expecting.

No more exams, no more indoctrination, no more competition, no fucking pressure. Don’t you hate being treated like a scholarship magnet? The entire Solar System is ours to explore now. Hell, you’re about to see Delia, again.

He tosses me a disk-shaped compression canister I manage to catch without dropping.

He’s got a point.

So then, maybe it’s a good thing I reworked that abandoned nanotech research for my class project and ended up revealing a scientific breakthrough the military would kill for?

The only thing is my parents don’t treat me like scholarship magnet. They believe in me, even though I’m really not all that great for a kid who’s supposed to be a genius. If only I were as wary of my

academic sponsors as they were…

 

Click here to see the whole story on Pages Without Paper! –>>> http://wp.me/a5BP9Y-bm

61ur9c7oOsL.jpgIf you’d like to continue the adventure with Sasha and Herb, make sure you grab a copy of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements which includes Jelani Wilson’s story “22XX: One Shot”

Whenever we envision a world without war, without prisons, without capitalism, we are producing speculative fiction. Organizers and activists envision, and try to create, such worlds all the time. Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown have brought twenty of them together in the first anthology of short stories to explore the connections between radical speculative fiction and movements for social change. The visionary tales of Octavia’s Brood span genres—sci-fi, fantasy, horror, magical realism—but all are united by an attempt to inject a healthy dose of imagination and innovation into our political practice and to try on new ways of understanding ourselves, the world around us, and all the selves and worlds that could be. The collection is rounded off with essays by Tananarive Due and Mumia Abu-Jamal, and a preface by Sheree Renée Thomas.

Horizons: Androids in Love

Horizons is another new feature you’ll see on Sarah Does Sci-Fi in the coming months (and years). I intend to use this space to explore marginalized voices in the world of science fiction, as well as stepping outside of the writing realm to explore SF themes and ideas in film, music, and visual arts. So check out the reviews, recommendations, and explorations of science fiction media on the Horizons Page to expand yours.

As a science fiction writer and all around SF enthusiast I’m always on the lookout for fun things that might inspire the next story. Ten years ago I stumbled upon one such Sci-Fi surprise when I found myself falling headfirst into the music of Janelle Monae.

If you haven’t heard of Monae, you absolutely must check her out. When I downloaded her Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (2007) I had no idea what I was getting myself into. This album is an exquisite blend of storytelling and song that you will not be able to stop listening to (or dancing embarrassingly to, if you’re anything like me).

 

Suite I: (The Chase) tells the story of an android, Cindi Mayweather, who has the grave misfortune to fall in love with a human. Monae has created what I want to call a Sci-Fi Opera; each song has its own sound but the story moves seamlessly from one track to the next as we follow Mayweather on her flight from the humans who want to disassemble her for her crime.

Watch the short film for “Many Moons” here, to get an idea of what Monae’s concept is like.

This is such a great example of the way artists can work across genres to build on a theme. Monae’s Metropolis was inspired by Fritz Lang’s classic SF film, Metropolis (1927). It, and the sequel album, The ArchAndroid (2010), have been on my mind for the last decade. I listen to them often, but it’s not just that. There’s an idea stirring here…

With Blade Runner 2049 out this year, there’s been a lot of buzz in the world of SF writers around artificial intelligence and some great philosophical discussion about what makes us human. I admittedly have never seen Blade Runner (1982) or Blade Runner 2049 (2017). But I have read and loved Philip K. Dyck’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep(1968). I even blogged about it after I read it the first time, check it out HERE!

Now, I’m working on a short story (possibly novella, if things get out of hand) which is basically a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” with a Sci-Fi twist. In my version, the Nightingale in question is a singing android who falls in love with her creator.

NOTE: I’m telling you this because I’m not going to be scared of sharing my ideas anymore, no matter how rough a state they are in. Am I scared of someone stealing my idea? NO! Because even with the same premise no two writers will ever write the same story. So if you are inspired, go write your own version of this story! And then, of course, share it with me here!

Are you a Janelle Monae fan? Has she inspired any of your work? Who are some of your favourite musicians and artists who like to dabble in Sci-Fi themes? Drop me a comment, fire me and email or message! I might just feature one of your faves here in the future.

The TBR Pile: Black Speculative Fiction Month Edition

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The month is almost over, and I’m just getting back into this whole blogging thing. But I just found out that October is Black Speculative Fiction Month! So, I will be dedicating the rest of my posts this month to black SF writers/creators and books with black protagonists. For now, I’d like to drop some links for further reading while I catch up on all the stuff that’s been going on this month!

Chronicles of Harriet has a great explanation of what BSFM is all about, plus a reading list that will keep you busy until next October!

Troy L. Wiggins has a post on “Six Essential Fantasy and Science Fiction Books Written by Black Authors” which features two of my favourite SF writers of all time: Octavia E. Butler (If you haven’t read Lilith’s Brood yet, you absolutely must!) and N.K. Jemisin (I wrote about Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms HERE)

NPR has an excellent article on the importance of Black SF by author by Alaya Dawn Johnson that is full of industry insights and reading recommendations, “Black Sci-Fi Writers Look to the Future.”

And Grey Dog Tales will tell you why you should care about Black Speculative Fiction Month, “even if you’re as white as a recently-scrubbed albino sheep in a Yorkshire snowdrift.” This article is thought provoking and full of suggestions for further reading—blogs, articles, and recommendations abound!

Or if you just want to check out some new books, here are some that I’ve read or have in my TBR pile. Let’s celebrate BSFM with new books to read! Ask your local bookstore to stock these authors, make a request at your library, buy your own copy, write a review, dive in and ENJOY!

41tfeLyYimLDhalgren by Samuel R. Delany:

Nebula Award Finalist: Reality has come unglued and a mad civilization takes root in Bellona, in this science fiction classic.

A young half–Native American known as the Kid has hitchhiked from Mexico to the midwestern city Bellona—only something is wrong there . . . In Bellona, the shattered city, a nameless cataclysm has left reality unhinged. Into this desperate metropolis steps the Kid, his fist wrapped in razor-sharp knives, to write, to love, to wound.

So begins Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany’s masterwork, which in 1975 opened a new door for what science fiction could mean. A labyrinth of a novel, it raises questions about race, sexuality, identity, and art, but gives no easy answers, in a city that reshapes itself with each step you take . . .

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Samuel R. Delany including rare images from his early career.

61PCeRgmQAL._SY346_The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K Jemisin:

A REALM OF GODS AND MORTALS.

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.

51ucq60C9zL.jpgLilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler: Three novels in one volume: the acclaimed science fiction trilogy about an alien species that could save humanity after nuclear apocalypse—or destroy it.

The newest stage in human evolution begins in outer space. Survivors of a cataclysmic nuclear war awake to find themselves being studied by the Oankali, tentacle-covered galactic travelers whose benevolent appearance hides their surprising plan for the future of mankind. The Oankali arrive not just to save humanity, but to bond with it—crossbreeding to form a hybrid species that can survive in the place of its human forebears, who were so intent on self-destruction. Some people resist, forming pocket communities of purebred rebellion, but many realize they have no choice. The human species inevitably expands into something stranger, stronger, and undeniably alien.

From Hugo and Nebula award–winning author Octavia Butler,Lilith’s Brood is both a thrilling, epic adventure of man’s struggle to survive after Earth’s destruction, and a provocative meditation on what it means to be human.

51maU6K7HAL._SY346_.jpgWill Do Magic for Small Change By Andrea Hairston:

Cinnamon Jones dreams of stepping on stage and acting her heart out like her famous grandparents, Redwood and Wildfire. But at 5’10’’ and 180 pounds, she’s theatrically challenged. Her family life is a tangle of mystery and deadly secrets, and nobody is telling Cinnamon the whole truth. Before her older brother died, he gave Cinnamon The Chronicles of the Great Wanderer, a tale of a Dahomean warrior woman and an alien from another dimension who perform in Paris and at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Chronicles may be magic or alien science, but the story is definitely connected to Cinnamon’s family secrets. When an act of violence wounds her family, Cinnamon and her theatre squad determine to solve the mysteries and bring her worlds together.

41Ybzx4ZG9L.jpgDark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree R. Thomas:

This volume introduces black science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers to the generations of readers who have not had the chance to explore the scope and diversity among African-American writers.

51Uy-XHYgiLElysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett:

Received the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award Special Citation
A Finalist for the 2015 Locus Award for Best First Novel

A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.

61y7w-c2dFL.jpgThe Alchemists of Kush By Minister Faust:

Two Sudanese “lost boys.” Both fathers murdered during civil war. Both mothers forced into exile where the only law was violence. To survive, the boys became ruthless loners and child soldiers, until they found mystic mentors who transformed them into their true destinies.

One: known to the streets as the Supreme Raptor; the other: known to the Greeks as Horus, son of Osiris. Separated by seven thousand years, and yet connected by immortal truth.

Born in fire. Baptized in blood. Brutalized by the wicked. Sworn to transform the world and themselves. They are the Alchemists of Kush.

41eUhJG7m5L._SY346_Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor:

In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different—special—she names her Onyesonwu, which means “Who fears death?” in an ancient language.

It doesn’t take long for Onye to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her conception. She is Ewu—a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by her community. But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.

Desperate to elude her would-be murderer and to understand her own nature, she embarks on a journey in which she grapples with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learns why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.

41tWRPpGRgL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgCrystal Rain By Tobias S. Buckell

The is much-anticipated debut novel by Tobias S. Buckell, one of science fiction’s newest and most promising talents.

Long ago, so the stories say, the old-fathers came to Nanagada through a worm’s hole in the sky. Looking for a new world to call their own, they brought with them a rich mélange of cultures, religions, and dialects from a far-off planet called Earth. Mighty were the old-fathers, with the power to shape the world to their liking—but that was many generations ago, and what was once known has long been lost. Steamboats and gas-filled blimps now traverse the planet, where people once looked up to see great silver cities in the sky.

Like his world, John deBrun has forgotten more than he remembers. Twenty-seven years ago, he washed up onto the shore of Nanagada with no memory of his past. Although he has made a new life for himself among the peaceful islanders, his soul remains haunted by unanswered questions about his own identity.

These mysteries take on new urgency when the fearsome Azteca storm over the Wicked High Mountains in search of fresh blood and hearts to feed their cruel, inhuman gods. Nanagada’s only hope lies in a mythical artifact, the Ma Wi Jung, said to be hidden somewhere in the frozen north. And only John deBrun knows the device’s secrets, even if he can’t remember why or how!

51SpLP8SExL.jpgBrown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways–farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother. She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.

41w7GPKYewLFlygirl By Sherri L. Smith

Ida Mae Jones dreams of flight. Her daddy was a pilot and being black didn’t stop him from fulfilling his dreams. But her daddy’s gone now, and being a woman, and being black, are two strikes against her.

When America enters the war with Germany and Japan, the Army creates the WASP, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—and Ida suddenly sees a way to fly as well as do something significant to help her brother stationed in the Pacific. But even the WASP won’t accept her as a black woman, forcing Ida Mae to make a difficult choice of “passing,” of pretending to be white to be accepted into the program. Hiding one’s racial heritage, denying one’s family, denying one’s self is a heavy burden. And while Ida Mae chases her dream, she must also decide who it is she really wants to be.

51V7WWg9EzL._SY346_.jpgLove is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.