Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Think Galactic- Octavia's Brood

For the last Think Galactic meeting of 2015, we discussed the collection "Octavia's Brood", edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown.

The collection brings together writers who are active in social justice movements, many of who don't normally work in the short SF/F form, to pay tribute to the kind of "visionary fiction" embodied in the work of Octavia Butler.

We were a bit split over the collection as a whole. We all agreed that we liked the idea of the project and the ideas being engaged with. However, some of us found the execution extremely weak in many (though not all) of the stories. An interesting discussion.

We closed the discussion by making our own list of transformative or visionary fiction, and also selected books for the first half of next year.

So just to expand on that split of opinion: a few of us basically just had a really hard time overlooking the technical problems with the writing in many of the pieces. Our biggest complaint was that many of these stories didn't work very well qua short story—they read like condensed novel-pitches, or introductory chapters, or recaps. We also went after technical issues in a few, particularly dialogue, point-of-view, and unnecessary-thesaurus syndrome, among others.

We argued that visionary fiction has to work as fiction to be effective—the message isn't compelling if it's the only redeeming part of the piece. By contrast, we brought up writers like Butler, Le Guin, and MiĆ©ville, where the writing works even though you can often hear the axe grinding.

Also, it's worth mentioning that our focused selections that Sara picked by and large ducked these criticisms, because they were well-written! Most of our curmudgeonly style-criticism was directed off that list.

We talked for a bit about the process of this collection, which was explained a bit in the intro & outro—a purposeful bringing together of these voices, with the organization of workshops, and how that might have influenced the final structures visible here. Those of us critical of the quality here compared it to non-writery artists being forced to write artist statements about their work, which brought to mind the arty bollocks generator.

We liked Tara Betts “Runway Blackout”, about shape-changing fashion models refusing to whitewash themselves. A pretty unusual use of shape-shifters, and the suppresion/expression of racial identity in the fashion world wasn't looming large on most of our radars prior to this story, so it was very effective.

David F. Walker's “Token Superhero” was one of the stories that split us a bit, with some people really liking its critique of tokenism in popular franchises, and others of us finding it too weak structurally (total recap) as well as too already-been-done-in-actual-comics. It started us talking about the Marvel character Black Panther, which thread would recur a few times in our discussion, and we also liked the punk aesthetic of Black Fist's fans.

adrienne marie brown's “the river”, about a Detroit in which an inexplicably-animated river is devouring outsiders, was probably the overall most-liked story, being maybe the strongest and most polished. The lack of capitalization thing, I just had to let that go. We talked about the difficulty of addressing gentrification in fantastic fiction, or at all for that matter, and brown' s deftness in talking about the issue without over-villainizing her “complicated locusts” of entrepeneurs and hipsters, and the myth of “urban exploration”. We compared the river-monster (monstrous river?) to the films “The Host” (Bong Joon-ho, 2006) and “Prophecy” (Frankenheimer, 1979). Digression on the genre of “stupid jazz”. John also described a friend's sketch of a giant condo-pooping monster, which rather reminded me of the big automated machines in KSR's “2312” (2012), albeit pseudo-evil.

Probably our longest discussion was on MorriganPhillips' “The Long Memory”, in which there's a class of people called “Memorials” who hold the collective memory of their society, who are imprisoned in a political move and go on hunger-strike. Gaining it immediate Think Galactic Points: it includes a map. Much discussion of the memory-mechanic here, which is pretty unclear. We weren't sure if it would be better for the memories to be restored to the general populace, or kept in the heads of a dedicated “reminder class”. I was reminded of an Onion article on historians. Santayana's line that “those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it” was, appropriately, dropped.

Liked the society hinted at here--the tribal/communal structure of the attempted utopia, not a classic hierarchy; and I was fascinated with the importance of dance, body language, and gesture. I also really liked the old-fashioned dystopia outside, chemical-drenched, full of sterile mutants--reminded me of things like the "bad future" in Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" (1976). Sara also compared this to past TG read "Daughters of the North" (aka "The Carhullan Army", Sarah Hall, 2007). And we talked about vibranium & Wakanda from the Marvel universe.

Thumpers: when you want to
be ready for both zombies
and Shai-halud.
We also spent a lot of time on Bao Phi's “Revolution Shuffle”, in which a zombie pandemic has resulted in racialized interment camps. I had issues with the structure—again, no action per se, just exposition—but Michael teased out a lot about this story. I particularly liked the idea that, like VanderMeer's “Annihilation” (2014, a recent TG read), this is actually a love story “when you put all of the dysfunction together and get through that.” Sara also pointed out its political/zombified resonance with Grant's “Feed” (2006, also a TG read). We liked the imagery of the giant zombie-attracting pistons, and compared the bleak world here to "Children of Men".

We discussed whether there is a plan or not here, which determines whether it's a suicide mission or the start of a successful revolution. It's not clear! But we discussed the relevance of seeing stories about fighting oppression, successful or not—and how both doomed and non-doomed stories of fighting back, like John Brown (an alternate history of his armed abolitionist revolt is in the background of Terry Bisson's "Fire on the Mountain", here excerpted) & the Haitian Revolution.

At a few points in this discussion, we talked about demographic shifts in America, particularly how things are dropping off for the lower-class white population, and the connection to current spooky/ridiculous political trends (more overt racism etc.). We discussed how the racial internment of "Revolution Shuffle" becomes way more plausible when one looks at certain (hopefully unelectable) presidential hopefuls right now.  And this, plus zombies, reminded me of Whedon's pitch for Romney last cycle:

Gabriel Teodros's "Lalibella" was another one we liked--some comparisons to recent Think Galactic read "The Girl in the Road" (2014) by Monica Byrne, and also to the kind of corny-but-great "ancient high-tech civilization" meme, that brought to mind classic SF like Edgar Burroughs & Heinlein. Also liked the importance of bees to the story, and talked about the hacking of the waggle dance as one of the coolest scientific things ever.

So good.
Tunde Olaniran's "Little Brown Mouse" was praised for its highly-effective imagery, although we noted that the "young kid who finds out they're magical/the chosen one/super-powered" archetype is one we're rather weary of. Much discussion of the humane way to kill mice (or bats): probably not drowning. But we liked the central fixation on the act of killing the mouse, as a sort of surrogate destruction of self and inscription of guilt that defines the main character. Alternate-dimension jumping brought those of us familiar with "Sliders" (1995-2000) to recommend it to the table--it's all on Netflix, right now!

We talked a bit about Mumia Abu-Jamal's "Star Wars and the American Imagination", which I read in my head alongside Le Guin's "Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" (1974)--it's fascinating to see that change, from dismissal of SF/F as childish to big blockbuster franchises looming so large in our culture. I also highly recommend Charlie Jane Ander's recent io9 article "How Star Wars helped Create President Reagan", about how a story intended to be about revolution and liberation wound up working in favor of Reagan politics & worse.

Tananarive Due's essay "The Only Lasting Truth", a reading of Butler's work that emphasized the importance of change, led us to a brief discussion of Butler.

To wrap up discussion, Sara asked us to think up some good examples of transformative/visionary/liberatory fiction, and we cited:
  • Le Guin, especially "The Left Hand of Darkness" & "The Dispossessed"
  • MiĆ©ville, particularly the overt politics in "Iron Council"
  • Gwyneth Jones' "White Queen"
  • Doctorow's YA work like "For the Win" and "Little Brother"
  • H.G. Wells' socialist visions & critiques
  • McHugh's "China Mountain Zhang"
  • Butler's work, especially "The Parable of the Sower"
  • Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners"
  • Ryman's "Air"

We also all had a kind of enthusiastic scream about Tiptree's work, recounting the first times we ran into those and how mind-blowing they are, how stories like "The Screwfly Solution" or "The Women Men Don't See" or really any of her stuff jumps out as both incredibly good SF but also serious and punchy and transformative on a level far removed from most everything else.

On a much lighter note, I recounted my discovery on re-reading Bruce Coville, a goofy young-reader author, that he smuggled in a lot of super positive/subversive identity politics to his books. We also talked about Narnia as kind of "anti-visionary", in that it also smuggles in a message, but not one that liberates.

Then! We picked books for the first half of next year. Lots of wonderful ideas, but coming up we have:
  • January: Michael Swanwick's "Stations of the Tide"
  • February: Seth Dickinson's "The Traitor Baru Cormorant"
  • March: Ian McDonald's "Luna: New Moon"
  • April: Joanna Russ's "Souls", which was originally published as a double with Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", so that may enter the discussion as well.
  • May: Justine Larbelestier's "Liar"; she's a Guest of Honor this year at Wiscon.
  • June: Jennifer Marie Brissett's "Elysium". June will also be our month to pick for the remainder of 2016.
  • July: Kelly Link's collection "In Trouble". John will be picking some to focus on, and we may pair this with a short story or three by other authors.

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