Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shawl (ed.), Bloodchildren (2013)

Nisi Shawl (ed.), Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars. Carl Brandon Society, 2013. Pp. 442. ISBN 978-1-61138-237-2. $8.01.

Reviewed by Peter Kaptein (the first of two reviews of this title.)

Bloodchildren, an anthology being sold to raise money for the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Clarion Fund, is available only until June 22, 2013—Octavia Butler’s birthday—from Book View Café for the price of $8.01 for the EPUB or Mobi e-book. Each of the eleven new authors has been a recipient of the Octiavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship which enables writers of color to attend one of the two yearly Clarion writing workshops. A story by Octavia Butler herself brings the anthology to twelve. In Bloodchildren you will find augmented people running faster than humanly possible, performing ritual dances to the rich and the clueless. You will find female, homosexual, Indian and black protagonists. There is the occasional heterosexual male in two stories—and only one of them is white. You will find hunger. Demi-gods. Airships, monkeys and mutiny. Stories from the point of view of the dispossessed and the subjected. Stories about outsiders. Stories of magic, escape and slavery. Stories in outer space and on earth. Stories of loneliness and love. Eight out of the twelve stories in “Bloodchildren” are really close to amazing, but the anthology feels almost rushed in its release.

My main beef with Bloodchildren is that it could and should have gone through one more deep editing round, focusing on content and delivery for each and every story in there: “Speak up! Dig deeper. Filter out the noise. Be bold! Hold still for a moment. Think. Redo. What are you trying to tell me here? What are you trying to tell me as well? Don’t be polite. Don’t white-wash your own feelings. Don’t be scared to tear open those wounds and write about it.” Three stories: ‘Re: Christmas, Bainbridge Island’, ‘Légendaire’ and ‘Dancing in the shadow of the Once’, have the makings of mind-blowing and award winning stories, but in all three I have the feeling the writers left me with a very promising draft-version, still in need of more work on how and where to touch, bind and expose their main themes and subjects. Four stories: ‘The Saltwater African’, ‘Steal the Sky’, ‘The Runner of n-Vamana’ and ‘Free bird’, are well crafted, with ‘Steal the Sky’ and ‘The Saltwater African’ standing out especially, but in these four I feel the lack of a more intense and deeper emotional kick to make me say: “Ah! Wow.” Then we have ‘Falling into the Earth’, wonderful on many levels, but hardly SF or fantasy and it made me wonder what it is doing in Bloodchildren. ‘My love will never die’ and ‘/sit’ are gimmick stories. ‘Impulse’ and ‘Speech Sounds’ did not do it for me.

‘Re: Christmas, Bainbridge Island’ by Dennis Y. Ginoza is an ‘after we lost the war’ story that centres on pride and the denial of shame and wrongdoing. The protagonist, an American woman, is asked by someone she trusts to talk about her past, about her childhood in that period, Christmas specifically. It deals with the aforesaid denial, the white-washing of atrocities and lack of regret: “In the end I am not ashamed of my past.” The story-line of Carol, her best friend at that time, seems superfluous. The story-line about the Korean/American situation hardly comes out. And I am left wondering: how did the people in her surroundings perceive the chipped/enslaved Korean workers? How do they refer to that situation? The story works partially but many hidden treasures are not uncovered. This story is now a raw diamond; it could have been so much more.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’ to me touches the subjects of the dispossessed, of false benevolence, loss of identity, “saving the indigenous people (from themselves)” and being treated as an exotic animal for the amusement of the rich and the privileged. It is tender. It is erotic. It shows a wider and a non-binary view of love. Our main character is well educated. Smart. Sensitive. She comes from one of the noble houses. In some senses she might be considered an equal to the people around her, but instead is treated like an idiot, as someone who should not speak up, should not talk about anything but her gratitude for being “saved” and “helped” by the benevolent Compassionate. The writing of this key-moment, that starts with the question: “Are you poor?” feels clunky and forced. Where I feel “Dancing” could have been voicing a very sharp rejection of condescension towards—in this case—people from the Once tribe and where I can clearly see many elements for an incredibly powerful and moving story, it kind of loses itself in side-tracks about the augmentations and the concept of “blood”. Instead of hitting me sweetly and (ruthlessly) hard between the eyes, I felt Loenen-Ruiz was holding back, hiding herself and her voice in side-tracks, and I think this holding back is a big loss for the story. The story has everything in it to be beautifully heart-breaking.

‘Légendaire’ by Kai Ashante Wilson starts with something, then goes somewhere else, then changes course again. What are we reading about exactly? The story has demi-gods, immortals, polygamous relationships, sorts of gender-bending in the use of the term “Johnnys”—which I assume are like “people of the land of John”. ‘Légendaire’ is about choice. Selfishness. Freedom. Value. Finding your way. It is rich and complex, cruel and playful. It has wonderful prose that is sometimes compact like poetry and hard to decipher, and forced me to re-read certain sentences. It takes attention. It has beauty. As the story progresses, we lose sight of the mother, the demi-god father who is introduced later, the lover of the son, the dead that can rise from the graves. As it is now, “Légendaire” is too shapeless and raw; it feels unfinished. Brilliance is audible, but gets washed under in other sounds. It lacks a clear line, one single, clear point of focus, one central theme to bind all other elements, allowing them to play around it, drift from it, come back again, ending with a clear delivery. Like you do in music. It is also possible I completely missed the point. ‘Légendaire’ should have been edited more. Cleared up to reveal its many qualities and its brilliance to me as a reader in a way that is undeniable.

Erik Omowoyela’s ‘Steal the Sky’ is smart and funny, a very clever story with several twists and turns you do not see coming, We have trained monkeys, air-ships and a good old mystery that is well developed and well worked out. The main players are a female Native American captain, a black engine man, the monkeys, a Canadian beaver and the military. In short: it is 1884, there is a war between the US and Canada. A military air-ship has been hijacked and someone has to recapture it Each clue given by Omowoyela is carefully used and carefully worked out. Each part of the story has function. Promise is followed by a nice delivery. There are some well-developed twists and turns and all makes sense within the story world. From a technical point of view “Steal the Sky” is probably the best story in the collection, but it lacks emotional depth. It could have had more jagged angles, more thorns, more grit. More personality and more emotional background in the characters. This is a land at war. These are damaged people! Now the story is just OK. The relationship between Hawk and Cassius is OK. The emotions and collisions between people, OK. It is safe. It is nice. And that lack of something deeper is one of the very few things that keeps this story from being absolutely marvellously brilliant.

‘The Runner of n-Vamana’ by Indrapramit Das is one of the rare “hard SF” stories in this collection and felt like a little nice snack. The main character, Mira, is one of the few survivors of a seed-ship, sent out to terraform the planetoid called n-Vamana, when something went wrong. Mira, the runner, is alone. She is running as fast as she can. The augmentations she received can kill her. She might fail. She might also survive. Her run is 8 days. 4 days have passed. Waiting for her on the other side of the planetoid are several people, including her brother. Again depth. Missing parts. What will her death entail? A tragic end to the attempt of colonization? Why this test? Why in this specific way? Is there any feedback, any communication with the team as she does it? Why do we not see more of Mira? What are her hopes? Her fears? How does she speak to and relate with her family as they are waiting for her on the other side of the planetoid? Editing! Depth! This could have been a short, powerful and emotionally delivering story. The idea of the lonely girl running around a planet is unique and strong enough.

Lisa Bolekaja’s ‘The Saltwater African’ is balanced and clear in its storytelling, which gives hints and short exposures of the world around the story. It is sexual, in some senses sensual. It has two moments of gore. Each part in the story adds up to another. It is trimmed to its bare bones without losing its voice or swing. What I missed was a “why”, hidden between the lines of the narrative. Why this background? Why this choice? Additional: what is more to this story than the romance and the magic? The relationship between the two sisters? How is the story supposed to be more than I already read in other shapes and sizes? Like ‘Steal the Sky’, this is a safe story. It is nicely done, well written, but it does not really touch anything. It lacks flavor. It feels like the plantation, the slaves and the “Saltwater African” himself are just another décor to write a magical romance against. It could as easily have taken place anywhere else. Where is the voice of the writer? What is her personal take on this period? Does she have one? Why do I not see that back in her story?

‘Free Bird’ by Caren Gussoff is part of a bigger narrative. The two girls in this story are sisters who live in trailers and seem to be “American Rom/Roma/Gypsies”. The characterization of the girls and the general flow of the story are wonderful, the dialogs are alive, the story bubbles with liveliness, allowing me to forgive the weaker parts as I read on. The story handles the concept of “being different” in at least three different ways, but I felt something was not there. The girls feel to me like “all American girls” from AnyPlace, Generic, America. There is no sense of distinction, no feeling of reflection from the outside world. Everything is so normal and without tensions, almost as if everyone and everything is equal and mistrust and the effects of that mistrust of others hardly exists in this version of America. How does it feel to be an outsider in a culture that is not yours? Is that relevant for the story? If so, if yes, why is it left out? The homosexuality of one sister is the only issue of “otherness” that seems real to me, the rest just passes by. That said, ‘Free bird’ is funny, witty and very promising: due to its style, this is one of my personal favourites.

Shweta Narayan’s ‘Falling into the Earth’ touches several subjects including drug abuse, loneliness and honouring tradition. On the surface the story merges a past and present day telling of the story of Sita and Rama, exiled from their birthplace as Sita joins Rama as his wife in the United States. Narayan’s simple and direct choice of words feels almost undercooled, careless. But directly underneath lies a sharp wit and a very deep intelligence; Narayan keeps full control as the events unfold. There is no spill of words for the sake of showing off how well she can describe a face or scene. Instead, she invites you to read between the lines, put the parts together in your mind and expand and discover the unwritten and present world behind the words. I had one main beef with ‘Falling into the Earth’: how is this story of expats in America either SF or Fantasy? There is no magic. No speculative element. I should hate somebody for this. It is lovely.

I was baffled by ‘Impulse’ by Mary Elizabeth Burroughs; if there is a secondary meaning, I was not able to access it. The style of writing is impeccable, but the story does not transcend. People die, others awake from immobility. Inanimate objects come to life, but they do nothing more than fulfil the stereotypical roles given to them by humans. Because— why? What made me finish the story is Burroughs clear style and her ability to connect emotionally to the events she describes.

‘My love will never die’ by Christopher Caldwell is very much a gimmick-story. If I would tell you even slightly what it is about I would spoil the end. What Caldwell does remarkably well is the human side of the story-telling. Caldwell also shows he is not wary to be almost ruthless and raw in the part starting with: “You come here to get punished?” ending with: My cheeks were hot and my lips felt swollen. The hems of my jeans stank of mud. This is not just a moment before or after sex. It is brutal, daring and balanced. It is easy to remain polite and hide behind nice writing, instead this part specifically lifts the story up.

Jeremy Sim’s ‘/sit’, another gimmick story, lacks the ruthless rawness of ‘My love’, and instead comes to me as a polite, nice, cute story about loneliness; well thought out, but the writer is absent and it takes too much time to deliver the clue. Because of that I had trouble finishing “/sit”.

‘Speech sounds’ by Octavia E. Butler, first published in 1983 and winner of the 1984 Hugo, has too many assumptions I do not buy. There are too many inventions of situations that make no sense to me in the story-world, written mainly—it seems to me—to drive the plot. In short: communication fails; people lose their ability to speak and read/write. The main character is on her way in a bus to another city when a fight starts. This leads to a chain of events ending in the main character adopting two children able to speak. My first and main point of criticism in “Speech sounds” is this: when communication fails, many things fail with it. Including bus-schedules and the organization needed to keep those buses running. When you assume in the beginning of your story that buses are still driving and people are getting on those buses so long after whatever it was has happened, I am kind of gone. I will have hard times believing your story. When I asked Nisi Shawl why she had selected: “Speech sounds” she replied, “There is an adoptive relationship between the narrator and the children [at the end of the story] that resonates for me with the spirit of the anthology.”

My feeling with the stories in Bloodchildren is that they stopped just meters before the finish. Some of the voices sound muffled. Unclear. Distorted by noise. Self-censored by politeness, haste or possibly shyness; maybe silenced by the fear of touching something more deeply. A little bit more of a push on content and structure would have made Bloodchildren awesome. Now it is showing promising talent and this saddens me because that awesomeness is just around the corner. Not in the years to come, but here: in Bloodchildren. Since this anthology is currently released only as an e-book, I desperately hope the stories will be edited one final time and that it will be re-issued as the powerful work of art it can be.

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Anonymous said...

Re: Your reading of Shweta Narayan's Falling into Earth as not being speculative is erroneous. Falling into Earth is a retelling of the Ramayana. In my books, that makes it excellent speculative fiction and it belongs very much in Bloodchildren.

It also seems you've forgotten that this is an anthology of stories by the Octavia Butler scholars. Even if Shweta's story were not speculative, it would still belong because Shweta is a Butler scholar.

I usually don't respond to reviews, but when people talk about who belongs that just irritates me. Shweta's work belongs. She is a fantastic writer and that's all that matters. Period.

Djibril said...

I have to say I couldn't disagree more with your assessment of Butler's "Speech Sounds". As I was just saying to someone in another context, this is a powerful near-future post-apocalyptic story, written with heart-breaking down-to-earth simplicity and completely believable, tormented characters, which explores ideas of human communication and civilization, what it means to be a social animal, and how we are capable of relating to, being good to, and nurturing one another. It's a story that blew my mind when I first read it, and it will stay with me for a long time.