diamond dust: outsider art

Right, getting back in the saddle with regards to reviewing–I read a bunch of stories in December that I promptly failed to mention to anyone due to falling ill, so please bear with the fact that these were out in November/December 2014. If you missed them, then they’re new to you, and they’re all definitely worthwhile to revisit, even so.

Despite not intentionally looking for a theme across my reviews, I found that what I read and really loved from this period were stories about people on the fringes of society or isolated from the mainstream somehow. Admittedly, SFF sometimes leans to that kind of protagonist and perhaps I, as someone who’s a bit of a weirdo (‘pleasantly quirky’ was a colleague’s description), tend to self-select, but even so, the concept was close to my heart when reading over the past couple of months.

Just to note, as I revisited the stories in this post, I was reading Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Sister Mine, which is also very much worth your time and engaged me in some of the same ways emotionally that I got from these stories. Sister Mine is an outsider story of serious proportions–in fact, Makeda is an outsider among outsiders, and how she finds herself is epic and wonderful. It also has a really engaging (and enraging) pantheon and magic system, which, like Little Badger and Vourvoulias below, smashes the crap out of the tired ‘urban fantasy’ genre.

Please note that these aren’t exactly redemption narratives or fixes for people, as I long ago got past the idea that everyone liking someone and respecting them would solve all of their problems. The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ending actually makes for a tiresome read, in my mind, like eating too much sickly sweet candy; life and people are far too complicated to change quickly and irrevocably.

It’s not only more real when things are harder than that, it’s far more interesting.

Darcie Little Badger, Nkásht íí (Strange Horizons)

I’m really, really liking a lot of the works reclaiming of what’s simplistically called ‘urban fantasy’ as a subgenre, but should be called something more like ‘fantastic elements intersecting with people in a world that’s fairly close to our own reality and this is a crap subgenre name’. The genre, whatever you want to call it, has been white and Eurocentric for far too long, ((I will admit I am one of those people who bounced off de Lint several times and gave up.)) and works like Little Badger’s (and later in this post, Vourvoulias’), among many others, are far more engaging to me. They feel far more true to life, more lived in and possibly-real (which for me is the appeal of this genre) than those tread down paths that have been worn to shreds in genre fiction. Anyway.

Nkásht íí is the story of Annie and Josie, two young Native women in the US Southwest who are effectively street buskers working for karma–while they don’t appear to be mystics, they offer to listen to people’s troubles, and in the process can sometimes help them out supernaturally. (It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t presented as normative in the diagesis of the story. Their work seems as odd to many folks as it would in our reality, which adds to the realistic feel.)  Josie and Annie have both burned some bridges when it comes to their families, and not all that long ago either. When they offer to help a grieving white father, the issues of past and family end up being far closer to the surface than Josie would like them to be.

While the overall plot of Nkásht íí is pretty straightforward, I found that the story stood out to me in other, very particular ways. Little Badger’s sense of place, for a start, is absolutely fantastic; she brings the Southwest to life, and as someone who knows enough of small-town and suburban America, the way she evokes those locales resonated with me. What also got to me were Josie’s memories and flashbacks to a not-that-long-ago teenage life, which Little Badger conveys with honesty and compassion. Josie’s problems and isolation are shown as real things, rather than portrayed through the wry lens of adulthood as melodrama, and her experience is critical to how she finds some (if not complete) resolution to her feelings about family.

Because of that–real places, real people–while I’d not read any of Little Badger’s work before,  I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more. Her blog indicates she’s working on a comic, which is super exciting, among other projects.

Sabrina Vourvoulias, Skin in the Game (Tor.com)

While Little Badger doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the ‘ffs must find better term than urban fantasy’ genre, Sabrina Vourvoulias takes the reader to a far grimmer place ((I’d advise readers to mind the warning in the editorial note at the top of the story.)) in her Philadelphia. Part of what makes the protagonist, police officer Jimena, and her world so engaging is the fact that it’s hard for the reader to distinguish the fantastical from what we know as our reality. For starters, when Jimena refers to zombies, does she mean the undead or does she mean drug addicts?

In Zombie City, a part of Philadelphia forsaken by most official bodies, it’s hard to say, and because of that, the ‘actual’ monsters are hard to identify. Jimena’s half monster herself, and is trying to make up for that fact by protecting Zombie City and hunting down the monsters that lurk there. It doesn’t help her cause that she’s a Latina beat officer in the land of white guy cops, including her partner. Nor does it help that she’s got an unabating hunger for violence and mayhem she’s got to tamp down.

What I really admired about Skin in the Game was that Vourvoulias does some seriously brilliant work in twisting the reader’s preconceptions, concepts that mainstream white culture’s internalized. In the inner city and among marginalized people, who are the monsters? What actually defines a ‘real’ monster, and could we know one if we saw one? Who is really alive and who is not? Is violence inherent to people’s situation, or is it the result of a greater evil?

Jimena’s not always the most likeable person, but that just makes her a better character. I still wanted her to triumph over all the fuckers in her way, and over her nature, because at least someone out there needed to be doing the right thing. Her attempts build a very smart story that’s more than necessary in spec fic right now, as police brutality and the racialization of violence become the mainstream focus they should have been for a long time.

Ann Leckie, She Commands Me and I Obey [pt 1, pt 2] (Strange Horizons)

I will now admit that I have been slower than I should have been to get reading Leckie’s work alongside everyone recently, as the quarter-finished paperback of Ancillary Justice sitting in my room and the unread copy of Ancillary Sword I got for Christmas indicate. In my defence I present the difficulties I’ve had with novels that I’ve mentioned previously (I only recently finished the first novel I’ve read in its entirety in some time)–and partially because of this guilt, I nearly gave She Commands Me… a pass, hearing it takes place in Ancillary-verse.

There are two important things to note about this story, if you’re wavering on whether you should read it yourself:
– You don’t need to have to know the Imperial Radch books to enjoy it.
– You don’t need to like sports writing to enjoy it. ((This was nearly a pointless anecdote about my brother and the book Favre For The Record and nostalgia about passing up Matt Christopher books in my elementary school library. Be glad you missed it.))
I would say that you probably will get good things out of this story if you DO have either of the above preferences, but they’re certainly not prerequisites.

In fact, the ballgame in She Commands Me is a means to an end, and that end is very explicitly politics and religion. Noage Itray, which culturally struck me as somewhere between Mesoamerican and Tibetan Buddhist (this is not self-limiting, and your mileage may vary) elects its governor based on the result of the Game and deifies the players, who are all members of religious orders. The main issue at stake–that is, outwith the power and glory involved–is that the losing captain will be killed by the winning one at the end of the match. I don’t feel it’s necessary to elaborate on some of the permutations this causes politically and religiously, save that it can be pretty easy, in some situations, to predict an outcome.

So when underdog side/party White Lily Monastery sends an unknown female captain instead of someone known and expendable against the heavily favoured Blue Lily, who back up the incumbent governor Qefahl Brend, everyone is pretty damn confused. This includes young and somewhat lonely novice Her-Breath-Contains, trainee of Blue Lily abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death. There’s more to this captain than meets the eye, of course; but there’s also more to Her-Breath-Contains, and to Brend, and to Shall-I-Alone-Escape Death. It’s up to Her-Breath-Contains to work all of it out before someone gets killed, with skills and understanding he never knew he had.

What’s striking to me about She Commands Me is that it’s a delightful sci-fi political thriller and bildungsroman–somehow it takes the best of that kind of ‘old school’ SF and puts it into a world and context that are far more interesting and palatable to those of us who prefer ‘soft’ SF and less problematic aspects. Leckie’s excellent at worldbuilding (particularly politics and faiths), and it shows in how evocative this story is. It conjures up real tension for the reader, and despite the relatively short length, serious investment in the characters and outcome…

…and frankly, she made a narrative that involves long sports sequences interesting to me, which is in and of itself magic. She Commands Me gives sheer reader pleasure without giving way to pure id-fic, and if you need an enjoyable yet thought-provoking break from anything too emotionally painful, it’s very worth your time.

Rachel Acks, They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain (Lightspeed)

Speaking of painful, I was torn apart by They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain, which was originally in Women Destroy Science Fiction (and I missed it, as I’ve not gotten off my ass and bought it yet), and as such I don’t have a ton to say about it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ahead and read it.

Charlie’s mustering out of the military, we find out early on, in the midst of a War Against Terror–a young woman who was going nowhere in a society without anything to offer until her sister was killed in a terrorist attack that incites a massive conflict. Partially out of patriotism, partially out of pain, she signs up, and gets a drone/bot guidance system implanted in her brain, providing augmented senses, and in an odd way, companionship.

Unfortunately, when Charlie’s conscience catches up with her during the war, when she’s no longer able to handle fighting anymore, she’s no longer entitled to her augmentation. Because of this, she has to adjust not only to the end of being a warrior, not only to the pain of memories she’d put on ice, but to the silence that’s to enter her head.

But while the loss is there, wide and vast, the silence doesn’t come.

While the greater metaphor of They Tell Me is entirely familiar to those of us who came of age in the US in the last fifteen years, I feel Acks provides enough difference and insight into the experience of trying to come back to civilian life to make this anything but the same old story. The fact that it’s told in a combination of first and second person does help–instead of being difficult to read and jarring, I found it was far easier to identify with Charlie than I might have usually. She’s not necessarily likeable, from what we know of her, but her problems, even when hard to comprehend, feel utterly realistic and heartwrenching.

I was also reminded, in reading this story, of some of the things Sunny Moraine and others have had to say about telepresence and drone warfare recently. There’s probably a lot more to unpack in They Tell Me from a sociological perspective–about personhood, the body, the military…but I’ll leave those to those better skilled in those areas. Even if you’re not, if you’re up for this gutpunch of Acks’, it’s an important place to go, to put on the character-as-drone of Charlie for a while.


I seem to have run out of words, so soon to come–January reads! Possible grumping about Dominic Sandbrook and about Alex Garland! Likely grumping about other things!

As ever, do stay tuned, and if you have any recommendations for reads, please feel free to drop a comment or tweet at me.