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[GUEST REVIEW] Athena Andreadis Reviews BLOODCHILDREN, Edited by Nisi Shawl

(Note: this is part of a series in which I discuss works of the contributors to The Other Half of the Sky. Links to other entries in the series appear at the end of this discussion.)

Bloodchildren is a collection of eleven stories by the recipients of the Carl Brandon scholarship, established in Octavia Butler’s honor to enable SFF writers of color to attend one of the Clarion workshops. The stories were edited by Nisi Shawl, herself a practitioner of many literary arts; they’re front-ended by a haunting cover by Laurie Toby Edison, by moving testimonials from Nalo Hopkinson and Vonda McIntyre and by Butler’s story “Speech Sounds”.

The collection is titled after Butler’s groundbreaking story “Bloodchild”, one of the most original and disquieting explorations of interspecies contact: spacefaring humans stranded on a planet with its own advanced sentient species have been reduced to breeding vessels along the lines of hosts for parasitic wasps or the Alien über-predator, though they generally survive the ordeal. Men are preferred as incubators so that women can produce more breeders, although bonds of reciprocal need, loyalty and affection have slowly developed between humans and their native masters.

Despite the title, editor Shawl chose “Speech Sounds” instead of “Bloodchild” as the Butler story in the collection and her reasoning is sound: it’s a shard-filled narrative of what happens when humanity loses its ability to form and understand speech. Non-default writers find it hard to speak, especially outside their own milieu. And SF, despite its pride at being the genre of unfettered imagination and forward vision, is actually a-swim with parochial unquestioned assumptions. Collections like Bloodchildren are welcome antidotes to this tendency, giving voice to the dispossessed, the rendered-invisible, the vast swaths of humanity still largely elided in SFF that stubbornly adheres to whiteAnglomale primacy in its narratives.

As is the case with un-themed anthologies, the stories in this one range from horror to mythic slipstream to steampunk to hard(ish) SF, from a slightly slanted here and now to alternate worlds light years away. There are braiding strands nevertheless: several of the stories transmute facets of non-Anglo histories and mythologies; many feature unusual societies and family arrangements; most dissect uprootings and oppressions (violent and subtle, personal and collective) as well as responses to them – from subsisting “in the cracks” to defiant resistance. As is my wont, I will start with the stories I felt worked the least and work my way up. The anthology does suffer from a systemic problem: several of the pieces – intriguing as they are – read like workshop exercises that would benefit from one or two more sculpting rounds. Additionally, two are novel excerpts, which severely shortchanges them by not giving them enough room to showcase their strengths.

Three stories are “high concept” and basically end the moment the concept has been mined. Christopher Caldwell’s “My Love Will Never Die” starts strongly: the heavily asymmetric relationship between the gay narrator and his charismatic lover (whose powers are telegraphed to anyone remotely familiar with vodun) packs heat. But instead of plunging into the thicket of obsession and dominance, the story runs out of steam with a rushed, facile wrap-up. In Mary Elizabeth Burroughs’ “Impulse”, inanimate objects come to sentient life and comatose humans revive, whereas able-bodied humans freeze into immobility. End of (admittedly frisson-inducing) story, with no development or explanation. Jeremy Sim’s “/sit” is a variation of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” played for uneasy laughs. Its Gregor Samsa is an RPG-playing loner whose family sharpens their hexing skills on him. The travails of transformation are convincingly portrayed but the resolution is so Hollywood-sentimental-tidy that it courts glibness, whereas other stories by Sim (such as “Addressing the Manticore” in Crossed Genres 2.0) are piercing dissections of isolation.

Nisi Shawl

The collection’s two novel excerpts show great promise but there’s not enough there to discern a fully shaped structure from the starting clay. Caren Gussoff’s “Free Bird”, a duckling that might become a swan, interrogates kinds of otherness in the context of an extended Roma family with two teenage daughters: an adoptee kidnapped and modified by aliens and a lesbian blood child. Gussoff has a gift for the well-turned phrase and the family interactions are fine-grained. However, the two primary characters, vivid though they are, feel too similar in the included portion. Kai Ashante Wilson’s “Légendaire” is a bird of paradise whose plumes point in every which direction. Darkly poetic, it’s fantasy with whiffs of science-fiction-evolved-to-magic. It casts a potent initial spell with its evocative language and its depiction of syncretic, original social customs and gender-fluid configurations but the excerpt doesn’t extend past stage-setting (subjective comment: my personal reading pleasure was further tempered by the fact that Wilson’s men are peacocks and his women peahens even if/when they have power; and that the story’s central family consisted of a male demi-god with two mortal women as wives, though hints here and in other stories of this universe indicate the existence of different partnering combinations).

Three entries are beautifully executed but short-circuit their potential to become unforgettable by choosing either safe or predictable narratives. Erik Owomoyela’s “Steal the Sky” is technically accomplished steampunk about an alternate late-19th century North America with the obligatory airships, but also with trained monkey crews and non-whites in command positions. The story touches deracination issues – as one example, colonial schools – underneath the Rocky and Bullwinkle wit. But perhaps because the story is so focused on technique, its female Native American co-protagonist veers into the strong silent generic stereotype. Lisa Bolekaja’s “The Saltwater African” takes on antebellum slavery, resistance to it – magic included – and the soul-withering survival tactics it forced on its sufferers. The language and primary characters ring powerfully true; in particular, the basalt-strong obeah healer is indelible. But for me, at least, the more original, less Roots-like narrative would be not the revenge against the stock-evil plantation owner, but the worldpaths of the complex protagonists once they’ve left the slave huts behind. Dennis Y Ginoza’s “re: Christmas, Bainbridge Island” is in Margaret Atwood territory. The unreliable narrator, an old woman, describes formative events of her girlhood in a letter. She grew up during troubled times that are a near-future variant of the WWII American-Japanese internments with the addition of brain chips that ensure compliance. The tone is muted, the narration subtle; however, too much of the central story is elided in favor of dwelling on a friendship that neither advances nor enriches the story.

Like the two novel excerpts, a too-lengthy setup also hobbles Indrapramit Das’ potentially fascinating “The Runner of n-Vamana”. A radically altered young woman – part scapegoat, part minor deity – is testing her mods as survival aids on a planetoid in the midst of being terraformed. The tangible and intangible particulars are well-twined and Das describes highly advanced tech as the riveting stuff it can be without resorting to the jargon or infodumping quasi-endemic to this type of story. However, the protagonist’s motivations are too conventional: nurturing of a male sibling (not a problem per se, but disproportionately assigned to women instead of allowing them passionate interest in science, engagement in larger social concerns or just sheer bravado). We glimpse her in mid-run but don’t get to see the outcome of her heroic ordeal for herself, her kin or the group dependent on her sacrifice.

The other SF entry, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s “Dancing in the Shadow of the Once”, follows a heavily augmented survivor of a decimated culture who acts as a cultural ambassador/live museum piece for the spacefaring victors. The historical antecedents are many and obvious. The worldbuilding is strong, with lyrical and mythic touches, and the story ends on a minor-key note of tentative grace. The protagonist’s dislocations and contradictions act as magnifiers of the burning issues the story explores, and the two main characters (women from very different classes of their own hierarchical society) emerge as living, breathing persons. However, the membrane of the story is occasionally ruptured when Loenen-Ruiz does not trust her protagonists and juxtapositions to tell the story, but adds meta-text or on-the-nose encounters that dilute the material’s great intrinsic potency.

Shweta Narayan’s “Falling into the Earth” is the most polished and memorable story in the collection (and the only reprint: it previously appeared in Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana published by Zubaan Books). It’s a elegiac retelling of the myth of Sita and Rama, transposed to contemporary California, that shifts deftly between fantasy and reality, sensuality and starkness. It brings to mind Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s undertone-laden portrayals of immigrant women uprooted from families and cultures that are themselves problem-riddled; like Divakaruni (and unlike the sunnier stories of Jhumpa Lahiri), Narayan opts for a bleak trajectory with a final scintilla of hope.

Overall, Bloodchildren is without question neither bland nor business as usual. It shows that speculative literature is larger, richer, more complex than the antiseptic windowless room occupied by conventional SF. Collections like this, beyond their intrinsic worth as literature, are also crucial as flags planted into a ground that threatens to become once again stony ash from regressive backlashes. As Olga Broumas said in Beginning with O:

…like amnesiacs
in a ward on fire, we must
find words
or burn.

In the same series:

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. She conceived of and edited the feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky (April 2013, Candlemark and Gleam). Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

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