Monday, March 25, 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 Victor Fernando R. Ocampo (the second of two reviews of this title)

Bloodchildren is a collection of stories by past recipients of the Octavia E. Butler scholarship to the prestigious Clarion and Clarion West writers’ workshops. The Hugo and Nebula-award winning Butler is one of the most well-known and best-loved African-American writers of Science Fiction. In her (comparatively) short life, she left a rich and brilliant body of work. This eclectic, electronic anthology, edited by Nisi Shawl, is a fund-raiser for the foundation that continues the work Butler did promoting under-told styles and perspectives. It is a welcome reminder of how essential it is to provide alternative voices in writing, particularly in genre writing—providing a balance to a mainstream whose focus is invariably the Anglophone male’s point-of-view.

The book takes its title from Butler’s seminal 1984 short story ‘Bloodchild’ (not included in this book) where a group of humans rescued from an unknown holocaust have been “integrated” into an alien society. There they are reduced to the painful and sometimes fatal role of birthing vessels. Like the protagonist in Butler’s story, the eleven authors of Bloodchildren speak of the loss of their identity, of their humanity and, in a few of the stories, their very souls. Each piece is colored by the experience of being a minority, of being an “other” in a new, seemingly alien country where they are reduced to diminished roles, to slavery, or to simple, utilitarian commodities.

Yet despite all this diversity in the points-of-view, there is something truly universal in each of these speculative fiction stories. Something that celebrates what makes us all human: love, family, friendship and the rites of passage we all undergo to find ourselves. The eleven stories here will take your imagination to bold new places—from an Indian epic playing out in suburban California to different alternate Americas, to new space colonies and to a far-future world where humans are museum pieces treasured for cultural entertainment.

The book includes a brief memoir of Butler by her Clarion classmate Vonda N. McIntyre and an introduction by Jamaican-born SF author Nalo Hopkinson who aptly summed up what this collection is about: “(this) … anthology is a testament, a praise song, a memorial, a healing balm … The writers are of many races and cultures. But in this they are bloodchildren. They are kindred.”

The book begins with a reprint of Butler’s Hugo-award winning ‘Speech Sounds’, a brutal but moving story about how the loss of personal communication and human speech becomes the catalyst for chaos and the breakdown of society. It sets the tone for the rest of the book and raises a very high bar for her “bloodchildren” to follow.

‘My Love Will Never Die’ by 2007 scholarship awardee Christopher Caldwell is a modern take on a classic voodoo tale. This story is about a gay Cajun Voodoo King and the unfortunate travel agent that becomes the object of his affection. Save for the alternative sexuality of the characters, the story trope would not unfamiliar to horror or dark fantasy readers. Unfortunately, the ending seemed a bit rushed and offered readers no real surprises. This is a pity given the fine Stephen King-like buildup at the beginning.

‘Falling into the Earth’ by Shweta Narayan (also a 2007 recipient) is a beautifully written piece which can be interpreted as an allegory or as a “realist” story with mythic elements from the Indian epic Ramayana. Narayan delivers a powerful, episodic narrative where each node, each facet reveals a painful aspect of the clash between the meditative, deeply personal Indian tradition and the fast-paced, often impersonal American way of life. This is all viewed from the point of view of the dancer Sita, who accepts an arranged marriage with the restaurateur Ram. The original Ramayana depicted the ideal duties and protocols between relationships—particularly between husband and wife. This story deftly chronicles their struggles, anxieties and biases as their marriage and relationship deteriorates in the “wilderness” that is California. ‘Falling into the Earth’ is one of the more literary works in this anthology. The richly layered text explores in depth the nuances and details of immigrant psychology and behavior, as well as the high toll it takes on the transplanted individual. It is a highly original take on the settings and themes that certain (non-speculative fiction) Indian authors like Jhumpa Lahiri have, in the past, made very popular.

‘Free Bird’ by 2008 scholarship awardee Caren Gussoff is quirky tale about a young alien girl that had been adopted by a Romani family in Seattle. It centers on the relationship between two sisters, and how Nurture triumphs over Nature as they struggle through the difficulties of young adulthood, gender preference, and the return of the alien’s blood kin from outer space. Although the story is self-contained, it is in fact a section of a novel-in-progress. This unfortunately, shows through in the characterization of some of the characters (e.g. the creepy Scott Lyn Miller) whose back-stories are not presented with enough depth in the chapter.

‘Impulse’ by fellow 2008 recipient Mary Elizabeth Burroughs is a strange confection that seems more dream sequence mise-en-scène than narrative. A mysterious event kills or paralyzes all able-bodied people in Florida, even as formerly comatose and paraplegic patients begin to move about. At some point everyday objects start to become sentient—coffee cups, children’s toys, underwear and even a Japanese sex doll named Selma, all of which start getting up and wandering in a directionless procession around town. Because the trigger event is unexplained and things seem to just happen at random, this has the feel of automatic writing or a mood piece rather than an actual story.

‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (2009 scholarship awardee) is a haunting and lyrically written science fiction story about the pain, loss and humiliation that even the most kind and benevolent of societies can inflict on a conquered, mendicant people. This is especially true if the ruling class cannot see, or refuses to see, through any other social lens but their own. It is about an Earth woman from the Once-country named Hala who has been reduced to the role of an Artifact—a living exhibit whose primary function is to be a museum exhibit and a cultural ambassador to the various worlds of the beings called the Compassionate. This is the most overtly political of the works collected, demonstrating how cultural hegemony plants the seeds of tragedy. Yet despite its fantastic, futuristic trappings, Loenen-Ruiz’s story is a hard-hitting criticism of Imperialism both past and present and its lingering effects on post-colonial societies today. The exchange between Hala and a rich donor in one passage is particularly damning (and relevant in this age of big Aid with strings). The donor repeatedly asks Hala “Are you poor?” and is offended when the Artifact proudly says she had come “from a good family”, i.e. the donor is unable to consciously conceive that a human that they had “rescued” and “civilized” with augmentations can ever be her equal. It is slavery of a more subtle sort.

Like the previous story, ‘Légendaire.’ by 2010 scholarship recipient Kai Ashante Wilson, is haunting, poetic and wholly original. The unfamiliar, lilting patois and the shifting points-of-view can be hard to follow at the beginning. But as soon as the reader got into its groove, this dark, richly-imagined tale rewards with its startling imagery—tripping through the mind like a Creole Baudelaire on acid. It is the story of polygamous New Orleans family who may or may not be the gods of Haitian Vodou (or they may, in fact, be alien discorporate intelligences), as well as their human and divine progeny. In particular the narrative focuses on the unnamed young son who is fixated on dancing and on the Reggaezzi, an inhuman Danse Macabre that had haunted him his whole life. It was somewhat disappointing that this was a short story instead of a novel. There were so many exciting threads and interesting sub-plots that just demanded to be explored, and almost every line of text simply dripped with dark beauty: “On the waterfront were people too poor for soap, who washed only with water, stinky of armpit, ass. Caramel spirits and pineapple juice. The day’s catch grilled over the driftwood yield of shipwrecks.”

In direct contrast to the serious and literary tone of the two previous works, ‘Steal the Sky’ by Erik Owomoyela (also a 2010 recipient) is a fun, tongue-in-cheek Steampunk romp across the skies of an alternate early 20th century America. The story is very much in the vein of old adventure pulps, e.g. valiant underdog shows up the establishment. But Owomoyela incorporates a very creative plot device: Battle Monkey-style warriors on giant USS Akron-type airships (as well as another, very surprising animal in a Wild, Wild West-style power suit). It would have been great if the author had spent more time geeking these out instead of repeatedly re-telling Captain Running Hawk’s back story. The conflict from the latter was not really given meaning and unfortunately, it seemed to have been merely tacked on to the narrative.

‘/sit’ by 2011 scholar Jeremy Sim, incorporates MMORPG and Gaming tropes in an unusual story about a young man whose extended family can’t seem to stop hexing him. The story was very creative and in parts very humorous. However the blasé attitude of the main character’s immediate family seemed a bit unbelievable, especially given the dire consequences of his predicament. This also seemed inconsistent with the fact that it usually took the frisson of a fairly closely-knit family (extended or otherwise) to produces the kind of jealous shenanigans that the cruel hexing implied.

‘Re: Christmas, Bainbridge Island’ by Dennis Y. Ginoza (also a 2011 recipient) is a post-apocalyptic story set in a world where North and South Korea had engaged in a nuclear exchange. The narrative is told in the form of a letter by an old Korean refugee, recalling her time on a concentration camp on Bainbridge Island (just across the water from Seattle). Both major and minor tragedies build up to a picture of dislocation and transition of which the letter would seem to be the sole written record.

‘The Runner of n-Vamana’ by Indrapramit Das, last year’s Butler scholar (2012) skillfully blends Hard Science Fiction with myth-making. The young orphan Mira is a nano-tech augmented cyberdevi, the first of the new inhabitants of the planetoid n-Vamana. Like ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’ and ‘Légendaire.’, the world-building is extraordinary. Mira is Das’ Indian take on a myth archetype: the messenger of the gods; the psychopomp, the one who bridges worlds. Yet for all her god-like powers, her one desire is heartbreakingly human—to return to her little brother who waits patiently on the other side of their new world. ‘The Runner of n-Vamana’ is one of two stories in this collection that is not set on some version of the United States (the other being Loenen-Ruiz’s). It is also one of two stories with an unabashedly hopeful ending.

‘The Salt Water African’ by 2012 scholarship recipient Lisa Bolekaja is a fantasy work set in a pre-civil war American South where magic is real and a part of everyday life. The story centers on the half Black/half Choctaw Indian twins, Tchulla and Neshoba, as well as Bola Ogun, the eponymous “Salt Water African’, as they struggle to gain their freedom from the odious slave master Lyle Stewart. Earthy and visceral, the narrative makes effective and interesting use of sex as magic, sex as a liberating force—as opposed to its use as a tool of rape by the white overlords. Bolekaja’s unflinching story about slavery is reminiscent of the 1977 mini-series Roots and the character Bola Ogun seems to share some kind of literary kinship with Roots’ Kunta Kinte. Like ‘The Runner of n-Vamana’, this is the only other story which clearly ends on a hopeful note.

While all the stories were heart-felt and mostly well-written, the execution of their vision varied in realization. The most successful and stand-out stories in that regard were Shweta Narayan’s ‘Falling into the Earth’, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’, ‘Légendaire.’ by Kai Ashante Wilson, ‘The Runner of n-Vamana’ by Indrapramit Das and Lisa Bolekaja’s ‘The Salt Water African’. (One nitpick with the collection—Octavia Butler’s ‘Speech Sounds’ is an important and powerful story but one wonders why it was chosen over the seemingly more apt ‘Bloodchild’.)

In any case, the role of speculative fiction in general is to envision and to write about how human society could become in alternate and future worlds. The eleven stories of Bloodchildren do that and more—they provide an expanded picture of what it means to be human from a more inclusive, more diverse points-of-view. This is what Octavia Butler dreamed of and her bloodchildren have certainly delivered on her vision.

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1 comment:

vrocampo said...

I need to point out one error in my review. In Christopher Caldwell's story "My Love Will Never Die", the character of Etienne, the Voodoo King is actually Creole not Cajun. Apologies for the mix-up.