I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.
However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”
It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”
I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”
This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.
What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!
If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!
Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be January without a flood of blog posts and news articles about New Year Resolutions. I’ve never been the resolution type. I don’t think I’ve ever even halfheartedly made a New Years Resolution unless the timing was just coincidental (I do occasionally resolve to be better at things, and sometimes that happens in January…)
One thing January is especially good for, though, is that there are a surplus of writing challenges going around right now! With the holidays winding down and real life starting back up on Monday, I’m ready to get settled back into a regular writing habit. Not all of it will show up here, although I have decided that I’m going to push myself to blog more. But January brings a few opportunities that I will be jumping into.
NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Round One kicks off January 18th. I have done two Flash Fiction Challenges with NYC Midnight, and this will be my second Short Story Challenge. It’s a really fun and exciting competition for a relatively affordable entry fee. I only do the two each year, so I might have a different idea of affordable compared to someone who participates in more challenges/competitions. But the feedback is quite good, and I love the random assignment format. It really pushes me outside my comfort zone!
12 Short Stories Challenge: I participated in this last year, and I think I made it through half the year before I got side-tracked. This year, I’ve signed up for the the paid membership for some added accountability. I really loved the community when I participated last year, and the feedback was really excellent. I’ll be using these entries as my Flash Fiction Friday pieces for the first of Friday of every month (starting February as our first prompt comes Jan. 9th and is due on the 31st to 12SS). If (when!) I complete all 12 assignments on time, there is a competition at the end of the year with prizes, and that’s my goal this time. I vow to submit something every month, even if it’s not my best work.
Jeff Goins’ “My 500 Words” Challenge: Jeff Goins is a writer that I have followed off and on since I was more active in the world of Facebook writing groups. I don’t Facebook anymore. But I do still open most of the emails I get from Goins’ page, and one of the ones I read was an invitation to participate in the “My 500 Words” Challenge. I understand that this Challenge runs year round, basically a challenge to write 500 words every day for 31 days straight. There are prompts if you like, and email reminders. I mentally committed to this project a couple of days ago (and I’ve completed my 500 words for three days in a row now!) But this is my official acceptance of the challenge. I’ll be posting my blog in the participants section, and following some other writers doing the challenge.
Linda G. Hill’s “Just Jot it January” Challenge: I stumbled upon this challenge when (finally) going through my WordPress reader and catching up with what my favourite blogs are up to. I haven’t been a follower of Linda G. Hill, but I like the looks of her challenge, so I’ll be doing some of these ones, too. I like the idea of “Stream of Consciousness Saturday.” I might not post all of my submissions, but I’d like to add weekly stream of consciousness exercises to my writing habits. So I’ll give SoSC a try at the very least.
So that’s what’s going on with me. Are there any other writing challenges, competitions, or blogs that you think I would enjoy? Please share what you’re up to in the comments!
I was in Montreal in October and visited the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC). As much as I love art galleries and museums, I didn’t anticipate seeing an exhibition that I felt worthy of a blog review; art and science fiction don’t often cross paths in my experience. But fortune favoured us. We stumbled upon “Manifesto” (2015), an experimental art/film series by Julian Rosefeldt.
I confess to not knowing who Rosefeldt was before viewing the exhibit. However, I will not soon be forgetting the name. This 13 part film installation shook me. I have never had such a visceral reaction to a piece of art before, and that in itself was memorable. But the content of the films stuck with me, and I found myself mulling over the imagery and dialogue for weeks afterward.
The star of “Manifesto” is the instantly recognizable Australian actress, Cate Blanchett, who plays 13 different characters in 13 separate short films in which she delivers magnificent monologues made up of snippets of artists’ statements from the past 100 years. I know, the description sounds bizarre, but it really works. Each scene and character seem to embody a particular art movement, from Dadaism to Abstract Expressionism to Futurism.
The exhibit itself is a darkened theater, and you walk in to see a huge screen with a firecracker burning in slow motion while Blanchett begins the titular “Manifesto”. As you move further into the theatre room, you see twelve different screens set up around the room, each at slightly different angles to one another, so that you are only ever standing directly in front of one screen. Blanchett is on every one of them, working her way through some everyday situation while continuing the Manifesto.
The films are playing simultatiously, so that each monologue creates a kind of dialogue between artists. The most powerful part of the exhibit are the moments when Blanchette’s characters each deliver their monolgues in a monotone at a different pitch. The films are timed so that the monotone segments all play at the same time. So you’ll be immersed in one particular film when all of a sudden these other voices swell up around you and the sound is so surreal and all encompassing that you feel like you are there, or like the film has come off the screen and surrounded you. The first time it happened I physically felt it over my whole body. As I said before, it was not an experience I’ll soon forget.
So what does this have to do with Science Fiction? Maybe not much. Except some of the films themselves had SF vibes to them. Situationalism felt post-apocalyptic, and Constructivism is a kind of nostalgic mod-SF feel. Ironically, Futurism was depicted by a stock broker on Wall Street.
And in a way, the conversations that these montages of manifestos were having, in the words of artists over a 100 year span, had a kind of science fiction-esque aura about it, too. One of my favourite parts of science fiction literature is how hilariously it “dates” itself in terms of how quickly our cultural visions of the future evolve. Those disparities stand out and funny, embarrassing almost, as we get to experience first hand the naivety of our cultural imaginations. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of how clueless we really are about our current world and future prospects, no matter how sure of ourselves and our lives we think we are.
Here were all of these artists, the voices of their times and cultures, speaking about art and particularly, the future of art. And what I noticed, rather than the disparities between past and present ideas of what art is and what art should be, were the similarities. There was a distinct shift in the conversations as we watched how the artists expectations for the future actually did affect the evolution of culture and art. And it didn’t matter what order you watched the films in, it would be the same. Past and future artists seemed to support one another and speak with one voice about what art is. As past molded future, so too did the future seem to shape the past–or our experience of it, at least.
And I began to think about Science Fiction. If you’ve read SF for a while, you’ve likely experienced moments where you realize that you are currently living in the time that some of your favourite SF writers were writing about. Noticing how they got it right or wrong can be entertaining and, sometimes, eerie. The genre does become a kind of dialogue between the past and future.
It often amuses me how similar the themes of retro SF can be with modern writing, and how different they look once the mask of cultural expectations is applied. And they’re all right! That’s the best part. Even if we make mistakes in our visions of the future, what we are saying about ourselves with that vision is true. This is why I continuously surprised myself by thinking “I agree” with one artist’s views and then turning around to also agree with the opposing view of another, within a span of about 15 min. Either that, or I’m just really susceptible to well delivered arguments, haha.
Anyway, I had wanted to write about this and tell you guys my half-formed thoughts on the matter. And I promised myself I’d be more disciplined with posting here. So there it is. Has anyone else seen it? Or seen the trailer and wondered about it? I think each of the individual films is available on Julian Rosefeldt’s website HERE. Check them out and talk to me!
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!
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!
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!
Dhalgren 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.
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.
Lilith’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.
Will 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.
Dark 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.
Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett:
Received the 2014 Philip K. Dick AwardSpecial 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.
The 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.
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.
Crystal 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!
Brown 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.
Flygirl 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.
Love 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.
I haven’t read Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist yet, but I’ve heard tons of great things about it and its definitely on my list now. To call this a timely read would be a massive understatement. I feel like Show Your Work has just solidified a bunch of little inklings and nudges and feelings I’ve been having about my career as a writer. I think now I get what I’m supposed to be doing.
Not surprisingly, that thing I’m supposed to be doing is literally showing my work. I need to be sharing my process with you, for the mutual benefit of us all.
I’m a natural collaborator. There is nothing I love more than sitting down with other like-minded people and hashing out ideas, asking and answering thoughtful questions, and being inspired by my friends and peers to create MORE and to create BETTER.
Yet, somewhere along the line, I bought into the idea that being a writer is a solitary endeavour. That in order to create I must isolate myself from the world, poke at my demons, and the struggle silently until I have a piece of literary genius that is ready to share with the world. I have been stingy with who I submit my work to, who I ask for feedback from, who I let behind the veil. And I’ve suffered for it.
My blog has suffered. I have believed I need to be some kind of expert in order to have anything of interest to say. Even when I was shared some of my publishing journey with you all, it was with the nagging feeling that someone out there was surely doing it better and that my contributions were pointless. And so a started and faltered, over and over.
My writing has suffered. My finished products have been waiting for “acceptance” to be seen, and my unfinished products were lingering in limbo somewhere because I’ve hit a wall I just can’t get over by myself.
My audience has suffered. Because while I’m sitting here waiting for everything to perfect, you are left with nothing but the occasional assurance on my half-assed blog that I am, indeed, still writing.
Worse, I’ve snubbed myself into a corner. I was terrified to share on new sites, or jump into unknown projects, and work with other nobodies. In my addled mind, I believed that I should only associate with people who were where I wanted to be, rather than where I was, in order to climb up in this industry.
I’m going to embrace being an amateur. At some point we have come to believe that an amateur is someone who is less skilled than a professional. The word is spat at wannabes and shouldabeens in derisive tones. In reality, the word means “lover.” An amateur is someone who does something purely for the love of it. They may get paid, and they may not. But they will do it anyway. I encourage all of you to find something you love and wholeheartedly become an AMATEUR!
Enough of us enthusiastic nobodies, together, make a “Scenius.”
This is a term Kleon uses (coined by musician Brian Eno) in Show Your Work. “Under this model,” Kleon says, “great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakes—who make up and “ecology of talent.”” (Kleon, Show Your Work, p10-11)
I wrote a short post the other day called “Moving Forward, Together.” It was actually just before I read Show Your Work but it is indicative of the way I was leaning already. I want Sarah Does Sci-Fi to be a collaborative effort. I’ve met so many wonderful writers and artists and enthusiasts in my publishing journey, and I want to share this space with you.
I’m going to keep showing my work, and I’d love it if I could show yours too.
How can you share? Drop a link in the comments, send me a message or an email. Tell me what you love and show me what you’re doing about it!
So, I know you’re a just about as tired of my bi-annual “sorry I haven’t posted in a while” posts as I am. But I am sorry, and I am trying to figure out how I can make this better for you and for me.
I’m thinking that I’d like to split my posts between three topics I enjoy:
Writing Craft – posts about how to improve your writing, posts about people who write well (and why) etc.
Broadening Horizons – focusing on marginalized writers or characters through book recommendations, reviews, and literary analysis, especially regarding Sci-Fi and speculative fiction
Flash Fiction spotlights – sharing my own and other’s flash fiction pieces (under 1500 words) to get people reading and share new writers with all of you
These regular topics will be peppered with posts on my personal publishing journey, hopefully with some insight that will help those of you who are hoping to embark on a similar path.
So. I will be working on a series of posts of my own that fit within this framework. But I will also be seeking guest posts from book reviewers, authors, enthusiasts, and critics from all stages in their career. If you have something you’d like to share with “Sarah Does Sci-Fi” please do (you can comment here, message me on FB, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
I’d like this page to operate as a cooperative of writers moreso than just a space for my own thoughts. Please don’t hesitate to suggest post ideas, too, even if you don’t feel qualified to write them! What do you want to see in this space?
I’m looking for some sci-fi and spec fic fans to review my new novel, The Timekeepers’ War. If you’re looking to add another book to your summer reading and think you’d enjoy a little post-apocalyptic adventure, please get in touch! I’m looking for honest, thoughtful reviews. No fluff! If you don’t like it, I’d rather read a constructive review on why than a fake positive review 😉 Thanks in advance for your interest!
Let me say first that my rating of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is through an “enjoyment as reader” lens, rather than a comment on its historical and cultural value. There is no doubt that Brave New World is a hugely influential and important piece of literature. It crosses the boundaries drawn around it by the Science Fiction genre and has been accepted as a classic work of English Literature. And there are a lot of valid reasons for this to have happened.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of the book—the broken and disjointed viewpoints worked to build a comprehensive setting and provided us with all the background we needed without coming across as an info dump (which it certainly was). Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, the readability does not. The characters reveal themselves to be little more than shallow “place holders” for Huxley’s vision. Brave New World is an allegory, sure. But it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these puppets as they are pulled from one predictable scene to the next. Part of their banality is obviously intentional, Huxley is emphasising the lack of individuality and independent thought in his dystopian London. By this rationale, we would expect something more from John Savage. But he too is a puppet. A puppet inexplicably reciting Shakespeare with no linguistic or socio-cultural reference for what it actually means.
As we switch perspectives from Bernard Marx to John Savage, my compassion for the characters actual wanes further. Bernard is a flawed, though, oddly sympathetic character. Of all of the characters I actually felt I understood him, even if he was a cad. Lenina is vapid and pointless. Helmholz may have been interesting, but we’ll never know as he never does more than lurk at the periphery of the story. Savage is all misplaced teenage angst and over-the-top romanticism, but he translates all of his experiences through the words of Shakespeare so that I got the feeling he wasn’t really present in his own story, merely acting out a role in a play he didn’t understand. The only time John Savage interested me was during his debate with Mustapha Mond, when Huxley puts his vision to the test.
Huxley’s take interest in eugenics is surely a response to the emergence of Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism. The twist on pronatalism speaks to the 1930’s population concerns regarding low fertility rates during the depression era. The two combined, and taken to extremes, are in essence a recipe for great dystopian SF. Had the narrative kept up with the ideas, this would be a fabulously good read. But the problem with readability was, for me, compounded by the Huxley’s problematic treatment of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This isn’t an undergrad paper, so I’m not going to go into ridiculous detail, but I will highlight some of the issues I had with this novel:
On Gender: Ya, I know. It was written in the 1930’s and I really shouldn’t expect anything more. But all of the female characters in this book are completely insipid. All of the characters who challenge ideas in this Brave New World are male. Bernard, Helmholz, Savage, and Mond. That is it. The only possible exception to this is Lenina’s tendency to “fall in love,” first with Henry Foster and later with John Savage. Linda challenges some ideas, but not by anything that she does, merely by the fact that she gets fat and old and therefore ugly. Not exactly screaming examples of female agency.
On Sexuality:In this world of required promiscuity and universal sterility, there is not an inkling of anything other than heteronormative relationships. Even when the goal of sex is just “fun” there is no room for bi-sexual or homosexual attraction, except maybe by accident during a compulsory orgy. Again, ya, I know. Written in the 1930’s. But it’s not like homosexuality was unheard of. In some circles it was even recognized and accepted (albeit in a limited sort of way). Huxley’s hetero world just comes across as unimaginative at best and cowardly at worst.
On Class: There’s a lot going on in Brave New World if you are interested in class issues. Huxley’s dystopia abides by a rigid, genetically engineered and enforced, caste hierarchy of Alphas, Betas, Deltas, and Epsilons. In many ways, Brave New World is a scathing commentary on American-style capitalism; consumption is the name of the game. However, in Huxley’s world of supply and demand, there are those who demand and those who supply. Alpha’s and Beta’s go about their lives doing the “important” work in sciences (mind you, they aren’t actually allowed to think for themselves) and they happily spend their money on stuff, they are the demand. The lower castes exist solely to supply the labour to fulfill these demands. They are genetically engineered to not want or expect anything more than their station requires of them. And they are happier for it. The unspoken sentiment seems to be that if poor/uneducated people would accept their positions and quit trying to rise above their stations, they too could be happy. [This flies in the face of the capitalist fantasy of the “self-made man,” and seems contradictory to Huxley’s other points against the ideology… colour me confused.] Furthermore, the idea that castes are somehow naturally ordered based on intelligence irks me. Granted, there is some social conditioning involved to keep the Deltas and Epsilons content, but the suggestion appears to be that all you need to do to create a happy slave caste is kill a few brain-cells in the embryo stage.
On Race: Ahhh, racism. This was the biggest issue for me. Racist imagery occurs repeatedly throughout this text and it repeatedly grated on my nerves. A pair of Delta-Minus twins are described as “small, black, and hideous,” (Pg. 55) they look at Bernard with “bestial derision,” (Pg. 56). Later, another group is described as “almost noseless black brachycephalic Deltas “ (Pg. 138), or another as “dark dolichocephalic male twins…[with faces like]a thin, beaked bird-mask” (Pg. 183). Now, I should not that there are Deltas and Epsilons that are described as sandy and red-haired, but they are never dwelt upon with such horror as the “dark” ones. Also, it is only the “dark” workers who are described in animalistic language (beastial, beaked). And none of the Alphas or Betas are ever described as dark; they are all Caucasian variants.
Since the caste structures are achieved through eugenics there are two possible scenarios which would account for this: a) dark-skinned embryos are purposefully chosen for the Delta, Epsilon and Gamma castes and not for Alpha and Beta, or b) stunting the development of an embryo somehow creates dark-skinned outcomes. Neither of these possibilities makes me feel any better about what Huxley is trying to say.
Further racist images include the Indians on the reservation, where the once-fair Linda is polluted by her sexual relationships with the dark skinned “savages.” John Savage, Linda’s blonde haired fair-skinned son, appears to be instinctually repulsed by this. When he comes upon Linda and her lover Popé, John describes the scene thusly: “…white Linda and Popé almost black beside her…[a] dark hand on her breast, and one of the plaits of his long hair lying across her throat, like a black snake trying to strangle her,” (Pg. 114). He is so revolted by this that he attempts to kill his mother’s lover.
Later, there is the “feely” that Lenina takes John Savage to. The film is about a love affair between “a gigantic Negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female,” (Pg. 146). The black man suffers a blow to the head and develops an unnatural and uncivilized attraction to the blonde woman, kidnaps and rapes her, before she is saved by “three handsome Aphas” (Pg. 147). Tellingly, the gigantic black man is not given a caste, signifying that even before his injury he is outside of civilized society.
Likely there are more examples, but I’ll leave that up to the scholars…
Now, I’m not going to say they no one should read Brave New World because it’s racist/classist/sexist. Despite these shortcomings, Huxley’s dystopic vision is interesting. Indeed, because it’s dystopic once could argue that Huxley is not advocating racist/classist/sexist views, but speaking against them (I would argue that you are wrong, but it might be fun anyways).
These issues did, however, disrupt my enjoyment of the novel for reading’s sake. And that is what I have based my review on. I have never studied Brave New World in an academic setting. I would be interested to hear from any of you who have, who may be able to enlighten me on any points that I have missed or misinterpreted. I am essentially arguing in a vacuum here. But for now, I’m going to go with a whopping two stars. Brave New World, “It was okay.”
I might be coming late to the party on this one… but did you know that viruses can survive being frozen, become thawed, and live to infect another day?
This has been in the news for the last couple of weeks: giant virus comes back to life, etc. etc. But, “according to the researchers, the revival of the virus could mean there may be other threats to human or animal life hidden in the permafrost.”
So this is fucking scary. Also, totally intriguing. Any SF writers/readers that have come across this theme before? Does it make you think of possible themes in future work? I know it’s been done before. But has it been done well? And should it be done again? Let me know in the comments 🙂