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The cover for Witchmark, the debut novel of C.L. Polk

A Chat with C.L. Polk About Her Debut, “Witchmark”

C.L. Polk writes fiction and spots butterflies in Southern Alberta. She has an unreasonable fondness for knitting, single estate coffee, and the history of fashion. Her debut novel Witchmark, the first of a new series, will be released by Tor on June 19th. You can read an excerpt of the novel on Tor.com.

C.L. was kind enough to have a preview copy of Witchmark sent my way, and after I read it last month, I chatted with her about the themes of her novel, her future projects, and how her work responds to important contemporary social issues.

Let’s dive in!

Note: The following interview has been edited for structure and clarity.


The cover for Witchmark, the debut novel of C.L. Polk

Me: For people who are unfamiliar with the book, what is Witchmark about?

C.L. Polk: On the surface it’s a book about an ex-army doctor solving a murder mystery with a handsome and mysterious gentleman, but I found myself talking about other things in the middle of that. It’s about how the people who are supposed to love you the most often don’t seem to recognize who you are as a person — and how shocking it can be to them when you refuse to be who they think you are.

(It’s also a story that talks about a difficult thing about our society – that some people get to enjoy the most of the world’s plenty because hidden way down underneath the luxury and the convenience are people who are treated in the most horrific ways, and we let it happen,because that’s baked into just about everything we buy and consume. But that’s depressing and uncomfortable to face directly, so I tend to lead with the ex army doctor solving mysteries with his gentleman friend.)

I totally see both sides of the coin. At the risk of sounding spoiler-ish to readers, when I learned about the witch asylums were, and then when their true purpose is revealed, I saw a huge parallel between that and the residential school system.

Thinking about that, I think I agree. I don’t know the half of the horror of the residential school system, but I’ve learned some, partly as part of reading Allan Wade’s work surrounding trauma that concentrates on the survivors of the residential school system (Small Acts of Living: Everyday Resistance to Oppression and Other Forms of Violence).

I was aiming at institutionalization when I wrote about the asylums, with a big slice of criticism for prison labor and the glaring loophole in the 13th amendment of the [American] constitution which allows slave labor from those who are convicted of a crime.

But returning to the parallel to residential schools for a moment: I think there are stories there, but they shouldn’t be told by me. I can see the connections, but they weren’t intentional ones.

I don’t know very much about the 13th amendment, while I do know more about residential schools, so that was the connection my mind made more quickly. But yes — the whole issue of the prison-industrial complex is SO there. Considering the commentary you tried to weave in, what was your path to publication like?

My path to publication was pretty quick, honestly. I started querying the work to agents in the middle of February; I was signing the contract on the first week of December. I was extremely lucky to find people who connected to my book and the story I told, and the themes I poked with a stick.

Wow, that *is* pretty fast. Congratulations!

Thanks!

Were there any books you looked to as a model for how to weave that social commentary in with the more surface-friendly parts?

I think SFF is often very good at doing thematic heavy lifting while telling a story that entertains the reader. My friend Elizabeth Bear does it. Barbara Hambly and Jo Walton do it too, and short stories do this all the time. I didn’t look at any specific book; I just figured, “everyone else does, why can’t I?” and I just went for it.

Oh! I forgot Ursula K. Le Guin. specifically her story “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas“. That story got inside me and I’ve thought about it for years. I think it’s responsible for the thinking that led me to Witchmark.

Reading through Witchmark, one thing I noticed is that the narrator is intensely aware of status and class markers. The cut of someone’s coat, the quality of the fabric, their shoes, what they eat and drink, how people try to disguise themselves to varying degrees of success….was that something that came about organically as you wrote the book, or was that something you approached with more deliberation?

That was purposeful. Miles has spent years looking over his shoulder, fearing that someone from his family or one of his former peers would spot him. Since class is a strong social divide in Kingston life, Miles knew that he would be largely invisible to anyone who knew him before, simply because his dress and mannerisms would make him unimportant.

But he can’t really relax about the success of his disguise, so he’s always watching people. Noting the details of their appearance and the message they send that most everyone these days notices mostly without thinking about it. For him, it’s survival. if he spots a wrong detail on someone, he’s alarmed, and probably getting away from that person.

What sort of research did you do to get that level of authentic detail in your worldbuilding?

Well, I did a lot of looking stuff up in the moment, so when I wanted a particular detail, I did what the writing advice tells you not to do – I stopped right there and looked it up. there are a lot of fashion history websites and collections in museums — the Victoria and Albert Museum website has a lot of information, for example. I also did a lot of searching around looking for information on arsenic, as I knew nothing about it, and about how policing was done in England at the time, and how murder investigations were pursued. Whenever I got to a point where I didn’t know how something worked, I’d look it up, and then decide how I wanted it to work in my world.

Leah Bobet mentioned that you were part of a shared online project with her, and I think that’s the same one Elizabeth Bear was part of. Any insights into how that collaborative storytelling helped you during crafting Witchmark?

Ah yes, Shadow Unit! I only wrote a couple of episodes, but it taught me a lot about how much background there is going on behind the scenes. When I first joined I think it took me two weeks to read the whole series bible, and there was a wiki, and it really reinforced my love of digging in and getting to know the world, even if there’s stuff the audience will never see, because it helps the whole story in the end.

And honestly? The witches and mages in Witchmark have a lot in common with betas in Shadow Unit. I didn’t even notice until I was a few drafts in, but they have particular, specific talents that expend your personal metabolic energy to use, so they need to eat. And eat. And then look at your plate and ask if you’re gonna eat that.

That reminds me — one thing I wasn’t quite clear on was the social differences between mages and witches in the book. Witches are stigmatized and feared. But does the greater public know about mages and what they do?

No, they don’t. The fact that there’s a whole population of magicians sitting on top of the power structure — the people don’t know they’re magicians, or what they do, just that they’re wealthy and powerful and do pretty much as they please while running the government.

Witches have the same kind of magic mages do. There’s really no difference between them besides the part where mages really make an effort to produce children who have the talent to control the weather. It’s just that witches aren’t part of their class, so they suffer from systemic oppression.

I imagine that the sequel(s) will deal a lot with the fallout from when people learn the truth. Is that the case?

Yes. The story’s partly told from Miles’s sister Grace’s point of view, and she has a lot to do when it comes to trying to balance all the factions and forces that struggle against each other in the aftermath of the first book.

The other POV character is Avia Jessup, who appears briefly in Witchmark, and she’s dealing with struggles on the other side of the fight.

Ooh, neat! I got a definite sort of vamp/flapper vibe from her. How many books are you planning in the series?

I think I could go on with this setting and these characters for a while, if anyone let me, but realistically i’m hoping for a trilogy.

You mentioned that “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was an inspiration. What others were there? Did the story spring from any particular seed?

The story was sort of simmering along in the back of my head while I tried to figure out what it was trying to tell me, and little bits of what I read wound up influencing me. I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, and it directly influenced the boarding house where Miles lives in the book. I don’t want to overplay the connection because it might give people the wrong idea, but I spent some time reading and watching works connected to Sherlock Holmes. Another influence that people might notice is Fullmetal Alchemist, but that was an accident. I hadn’t seen the anime before I wrote the book. And I was also deeply into the television adaptation of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, for a little more in the way of setting and feel.

Actually, now that I think about it, Avia Jessup kind of gives off a Phryne Fisher vibe!

Exactly as intended!

How far along is the second book?

I am in the third act of a very drastic revision. I’m hoping to have it done in the next two weeks, so we can get down to the editing.

I think I’m winding down in terms of questions. Is there anything you wanted to share that I haven’t brought up?

We never got to talk about tea, whoops!

Oh my god, I forgot. THIS MUST BE REMEDIED. If you could describe some of the main characters of Witchmark as types/flavours of tea, what would you say?

Um. Tristan is an Assam. Very tippy, hand-gathered leaves, good for drinking with a little bit of cream and sugar. Miles is probably the herbal blend you drink when you’re sick with a virus and need some comfort. Grace is probably a black tea with some sugar and a slice of lemon, to keep the tongue sharp.

I had to think about Grace. She was hard.

Ooh, nice! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat tonight. Good luck with finishing the revisions to the sequel!

Thank you! And thank you so much for this lovely interview!

Kelly Robson Talks about “Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach”

The cover of Kelly Robson's novella "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach", showing the main character, Minh, standing in a river. Kelly Robson is an award-winning short fiction writer. In 2017, she was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She was awarded the 2016 Aurora Award for best short story, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, and Sunburst awards.

Her latest novella, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach was just published by Tor earlier this week, and I was fortunate enough to get an ARC to read beforehand. Lucky Peach may be a shorter work, but this story about a set of environmental specialists in the 23rd century who have been sent back in time to research the ecology of ancient Mesopotamia is a surprisingly hefty examination of ethics, generational strife, and the effects of climate change. Plus, I tore through it in the space of less than 24 hours, so how’s that for an endorsement?

Robson was kind enough to chat with me over Twitter DMs for an hour earlier today, so this interview is hot off the presses. Let’s dive in!

(Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)


Me: So, one of the things I found really interesting about Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is how the first two parts of chapter 1 really prime the reader to expect a huge, violent conflict — but by the end, the forms of conflict you actually see are completely different. Was that something you wanted to analyze going in, or did that emerge more organically?

Kelly Robson: I knew before I began the first draft that I wanted to have that structure — with a few paragraphs from King Shulgi’s point of view at the beginning of each chapter. And the reason is — really nerdy.

Oh?

When I was a kid, I imprinted on the novelization of Battlestar Galactica’s (original version) The Gun on Ice Planet Zero — which had that kind of structure. And I loved it so much. So I wanted to use the same structure — it’s like sprinkling candy in between the chapters. And because my main character Minh isn’t really interested in history, I wanted to be able to show what’s going on in Mesopotamia. Does that make sense?

Yes, totally. Part way through the book, I checked Wikipedia and learned Shulgi was an actual historical figure!

He’s so cool.

The wiki entry was pretty sparse about him, beyond the fact that he ruled for a while and was near the beginning of his particular dynasty. What made you decide on him versus any other Mesopotamian king?

I chose Shulgi first, because as far as we know, which isn’t much, his kingship was pretty stable, long lasting, and comparatively enlightened. And because Shulgi was actually a proven athlete, which is a detail that is rather telling. He was famous in his day for running a marathon to preside in a religious ceremony in two places on one holy day. Something like 200 kilometers. Impressive achievement of physical conditioning — especially for someone who must have had a lot of other demands on his time.

200 KILOMETERS?!

Yeah! But apparently long distance marathoners can actually do that.

Damn. I thought that was still out of reach even for contemporary athletes.

So this is something charismatic leaders do to seal their mystique — perform a feat that people consider impossible. That makes them special. It’s a public relations stunt. So I thought, Shulgi, you’re an interesting person! You’re the king for me 😀

And the thing is that the time travel point you chose is pretty early in his reign. It fits in pretty well with TERN’s statements that time travel doesn’t fundamentally affect the timeline. But in the end, we don’t learn enough to know whether that’s true or not. [Note: TERN is the agency that controls access to time travel in the story.]

We don’t know it’s true. Even Fabian — the project’s tactical historian — doesn’t know if it’s true. He just believes what the physicists tell him. But yes, as the writer, I can tell you that time travel doesn’t affect the timeline. I’m not interested in paradoxes.

The big question is, can you really say that what you do in the past doesn’t matter?

And that’s totally the kind of question only Kiki would ask.

Kiki is the moral conscience of the book. And she asks this kind of question because she’s not jaded. She believes in truth, goodness, and justice.

Yes! I remember thinking throughout that I was in complete agreement with her throughout the book.

So am I 😀

It’s a question we come up against in our post-colonial world. How do you go to someone else’s world, use it for your own purposes, and not do violence to the people there? You can’t.

Though I do wonder if you can delve into the generational relationships between Minh’s cohorts and Kiki’s cohorts. Kiki says that her generation is moving away because Minh’s generation has becme too self-centred. But we don’t see a lot of that outside of Kiki’s own perspective.

Minh’s generation, in Calgary and the other habs, are basically not willing to retire. They’re mostly rugged individualists and workaholics. They believe that they are the only people who can be trusted to do the important jobs. That means that with the economic contraction that time travel has created for the above-ground habs, that there are few opportunities for young people. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In a way, it’s all an illusion. The habs have universal basic income. Nobody has to work. But people like to work! They like to know their time is well spent and valuable. Kiki yearns to do important work. Kiki and her generation don’t want to feel their potential is going to waste.

But if there’s UBI, I’m not sure how that plays into the fact that debt, and banks, play such a large part in Minh’s decisions. As for the modern-day parallels, I totally see those.

Yup. So in this world — and this is implied, not delved into — economic competition, investment, and debt happens between the Habs, Hives, and Hells (basically these are all city-states). Personal debt is a function of accounting that allows you to access luxuries or easier/quicker access to some services, or more personal living space in your city.

So, Kiki is in debt because she’s young. Minh isn’t because she’s been working for 60 years. But Minh’s type of expertise isn’t valued by the Bank of Calgary, so she’s not comparatively rich.

Ah, so it’s not actually a representation of money per se, but really a representation of privilege (for which money is a pretty good proxy).

Totally. What the banks really want is to have people whose expertise is sought out by other cities, then they can trade that person’s time for economic advantage.

I find it really interesting, though, that all things considered, Minh’s goals are incredibly valuable — long term ecological rehabilitation. So in one sense her refusal to retire is greed, but in another sense it’s a form of selflessness.

Yes — she has spent her whole life pursuing her passion, and you don’t retire from that. She did try — she became a professor who helped establish the University of Tuktoyaktuk and started teaching others to do what she does, but that venture collapsed when time travel was invented.

I worked for environmental scientists for 15 years, and what they really like — what’s easiest for them — is to do all the work themselves. Having to work with other people on a project is so much more work than doing it all themselves.

And they HATE mentoring people. Too much work! They’d rather work for 20 hours a day than wrangle other people to do the same work in less time. If they do it all themselves, then they know it’s all done right — or they way they think is right, anyway.

And thus Kiki’s choice to change her body to get on the mission.

Such a bad decision, Kiki! But you know, when I was 23, I would have done exactly the same thing.

I like how her choice is shown to be a painful one, but not a limiting one, ultimately.

It’s not limiting, but there would be social consequences if she ever wants to go back to Jasper, to be with her generation.

From your perspective, would you say that the society of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is more or less ableist than ours?

Overall the world is much less ableist than ours. In the habs, the above-ground cities where the plague babies are the dominant social group, it’s much less ableist. Some of the other cities — the Hives and Hells — would be slightly more ableist than the Habs.

I believe the future includes disabled people. Some people write the future like everyone’s going to be physically perfect, and that’s just not realistic. There will always be disabled people, and their contributions are just as valuable as anyone else’s.

And in the future, the ways in which people can adapt to different levels of ability will be far beyond what we can probably think of today. As you show with Minh’s prostheses, and also Kiki’s.

Totally. Which is the same right now. People can use prostheses to be extra-human — jump higher, run faster. Little difference between a prosthetic leg and a snowboard, really.

Are there any plague babies at TERN? Because I wonder if the cavalier way the time travellers treat past human lives is a manifestation of an overall lack of compassion or understanding of the value of human life, no matter the form or time it takes.

Right. No, there’s no plague babies at TERN. TERN is the time travel division of CEERD, which is an economic think tank, and they’re a bit insular. They’re not a hive, hab, or hell, but an independent economic unit kind of like a university, which leases living space from other habs, hives, and hells. They’re kind of like venture capitalists.

Basically, CEERD really likes playing economic games with other city states. And they play to win. So yes, you nailed it. Compassion and understanding of the value of human life? Not a priority for CEERD. Which is the essence of evil, really.

So in a way, it’s almost like the members of the time travel crew represent a spectrum of morality. From Fabian being the worst, to Minh, to Hamid, to Kiki.

Interesting! Yeah. Totally. Hamid’s off the scale, though. All he cares about is animals. 😀

He’d have loved memes and cat gifs. 😛

YES!

Moving back towards Shulgi, was he one of the major seeds of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, or did he get fitted in further along in the creative process?

Shulgi was the seed. There was a Mesopotamia exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, and it was fascinating. Alyx and I went about five times. One of the items they had there, from the British Museum, was a statue of a king carrying weapons which were specifically meant for killing monsters. Alyx and I were fascinated, because…

Imagine you’re this king, you have your monster-killing weapons, and your job is to kill monsters — keep the kingdom safe! But you’ve NEVER seen a monster! What do you think about it???

This was the seed for the whole story. What does this king think when no monsters show up? And what if monsters come and they’re not monsters at all?

Lucky Peach also hit a particular button for me, which is trying to explain modern technology to ancient people if time travel existed. Like, would you be able to explain a combustion engine or electricity to Julius Caesar?

Or even weather systems? You wouldn’t have the vocabulary.

Oh my god, yeah.

And if you tried to paraphrase to explain, it would sound all mystical.

Yes! “Electricity is lightning, but bottled in wires.”

“The air is more dense” “How can air be dense?” “Well, molecules…” “What??”

“The warm air is less strong than the cold air.” “That’s just dumb.”

Oh man. It’d be hard.

I think that about wraps it up,  but I do have one final question: In honour of Pi Day, what is your favourite flavour of pie?

PEACH! 🍑


And that’s that! This chat was a delight, and I appreciate Kelly’s time. You can learn more about Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach on Tor’s website.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

sorcerer_wildeeps_coverTitle: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps
Author: Kai Ashante Wilson
Publisher: Tor
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy via Kobo

The gods may have left earth, but that doesn’t mean that there are no traces of their existence scattered across the land. Rarely, there are people whose blood runs true with godly inheritance, like Demane, who can heal others, shapeshift, conjure fire, and more besides. Then there’s Captain, the leader of Demane’s caravan, a man burning with inner fire — a man with the power of music in his voice, an incredible capacity for physical regeneration, and an incredible ability to fight and kill.

People like Demane and Captain aren’t the only remnants of powers far stranger than we know. Deep in the south of the continent are the Wildeeps, a place where dimensions are knitted together and where the only safe place to rest is the Road — stray too far beyond its borders, and you may find yourself stranded in a completely different world, lost in both time and space.

Demane and Captain are the two strongest, most capable men of Master Suresh l’Merqerim’s caravan, and they know it. So does pretty much every other hired man there, like Demane’s circumspect countryman Cumalo, cowards like Xho Xho and Walead, and superstitious old buggers like Faedou.

However, when the caravan stops to replenish at the Station at Mother of Waters, Demane learns that there’s something haunting the Road in the Wildeeps that may test even their martial skill: a jukiere, a monstrous creature that can cross dimensions and has an insatiable hunger for human flesh. The Wildeeps, untamed by magical users for centuries, desperately needs someone to destroy this menace, and Demane may be the only person capable of doing so.

I first heard of Kai Ashante Wilson when Tor.com published his story “The Devil in America” last year. It drew a lot of strong responses; it’s a painful story about race relations, the loss and theft of cultural heritage, and how modern-day America’s treatment of black bodies — Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin — hasn’t changed all that much from the past.

Now, with The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Wilson pivots from telling a story about a probable past to a possible alternate world. But his focus still remains on centering the black body and experience within the narrative — when reading Wildeeps, readers get the sense that this isn’t your bog-standard vaguely European sword-and-sorcery story going on.

For one thing, the story features a compelling mix of language, where the florid prose of traditional high fantasy and the tech-speak of science fiction gives way to Black Vernacular English from sentence to sentence. So we move from passages like this:

That voice! Captain lacked the power of speech, was capable only of song. He could stand dumb, gesturing, or else make incomparable music. Even in a monosyllable, it was possible to hear him struggling to tarnish his pure tones, hoarsen their rich clarity; trying to turn his vox seraphica into a thing befitting the vulgar, violent world of a caravan guardsman. But calliphony was as inseparable from the captain’s voice as blood from a living heart, and he could do nothing, try as he might, to make any utterance of his less than the loveliest you’d ever heard, or would ever hear, so long as you lived.

To this:

“Why’d they do it, though?” Cumalo said. “Abandon y’all here? I always did wonder: the gods, just taking off into the great forever and beyond like that, and leaving behind their own children.” You would have thought this man didn’t have two sons and a baby daughter, fifteen hundred miles away and asking their mama right now, doubtless, When’s Papa coming home?

“Exigencies of FTL,” Demane answered. Distracted by a glimpse from the corners of his eyes, he lapsed into liturgical dialect.

“Superluminal travel is noncorporeal: a body must become light.” A tall, thin man passed by: some stranger, not the captain. “The gods could only carry away Homo celestialis with them, you see, because the angels had already learned to make their bodies light. But most sapiens — even those of us with fully expressed theogenetica — haven’t yet attained the psionic phylogeny necessary to sublimnify the organism.”

“No doubt.” Cumalo nodded mellowly. “No doubt. I had always maybe thought it was something like that.”

And beyond.

“If you say so.” The look of alarm passed; Cumalo smiled. This was familiar ground, the enamored bending the conversation back again to his amour. “I don’t see it, myself.”

Teef thrust his head between theirs, slinging his arms across their shoulders. “You two cut out all that ooga-ooga-bug-bug over here.” Which one worse: armpits or breath? Surely, the latter; but the unwashed inferno of his crotch and ass stank worse of all. “Y’all talk so a nigga could understand!”

The effect is rich, tactile, vertiginous. This is both because of the contrast between registers and because of the story’s mixing of several disparate thematic elements, like the ascension of gods being tied into the limitations of faster-than-light travel.

What’s also interesting is that Wilson lays bare a lot of the homoerotic subtext of sword and sorcery books. Even from reading the description of the first fight between Captain and Demane, it’s easy to tell that the two are lovers. Demane, an outsider from a land that’s far less heteronormative and far more respectful of women overall, finds it a constant struggle to try and keep his relationship with the Captain discreet on the caravan. Some know, like Cumalo, but such instances of tolerance are few and far between.

So: the prose is dense and full of layers worthy of unpacking. The concepts are interesting. The worldbuilding is great. So why am I not giving this a full five stars?

There are a few reasons. For one, the book is surprisingly short — The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is just over 40,000 words. Most of that is spent within the Station at Mother of Waters, with only the final section actually devoted to entering the Wildeeps, traversing the Road, and fighting the jukiere monster. Considering how much buildup the jukiere got in the opening sections of the book, I was expecting this encounter to take up a much larger portion of the book.

For another, it’s heavily implied at the end (spoilers!) that Captain dies trying to kill the jukiere monster and its mate, another jukiere about to have a litter. Captain and Demane are the only ones who have the ability to cross the dimensions lurking within the Wildeeps, so it makes sense that they’re the ones who go after the monster. But Captain’s death seems like a pretty classic example of the Tragic Queer trope, especially when you consider that two of the jukiere‘s other caravan victims are the only two merchants in an openly gay relationship. Demane’s sojourn into the Wildeeps results into his ascension as its new controller/caretaker, but is the sacrifice worth it?

Anyways, if you’re on the lookout for something with prose that swoons and dives and soars like a bird of prey, whirling at different altitudes and registers, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a good bet.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: Alienation and Alien Nations

Binti by Nnedi OkoraforTitle: Binti
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Tor
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: Bought it through the Kobo website

I’ve talked before on this blog about how I need to diversify my reading. One of the steps I’ve taken towards this was buying Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor’s work is something I have a lot of trouble truly appreciating, because her experiences and her writing approach are very different from what I’m used to — and I want my reaction to change.

In particular, I read her award-winning novel Who Fears Death in 2012 and left it feeling angry, confused, and frustrated. My review of Who Fears Death was not positive: I disliked the pacing, the characters, the ending, and the plot. However, I’m realizing that the problem isn’t her writing, but the fact that I’m not reading with the right mental tools in place.

Now that I’ve read Binti, I’m still not sure I understand all Okorafor’s work has to say, but I “get” a lot more of it than I did before.

Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib is one of the secluded Himba people of Namibia. Like her father, she is a master harmonizer and can “tree”, or reach a meditative state that allows her to commune with the mathematical flow of the universe. Although everyone expects her to take her father’s place and ignore the outside world, Binti has her sights set on greater horizons. Without her family’s knowledge, she’s accepted a full scholarship at Oomza University, one of the most prestigious in the universe. Binti opens as its title character sneaks away from home to the spaceport that will take her to her new life.

She experiences culture shock immediately once she leaves the comfort of her home. Her skin is dark, but both it and the plaits of her hair are covered in otjize, a mix of red clay and essential oil. The people that surround her, like the Khoush women, have rarely seen anything like it. Travel aboard the living ship from Earth to Oomza Uni comes with its own form of culture shock, but the other students on the ship, like her, are mathematically gifted and their enthusiasm and curiosity allow them to build new friendships.

At this point in the story, I was expecting that Binti would follow the well-worn path of Harry Potter and so many other children’s stories. You know: the story of outsiders continually feeling like outsiders — of teasing, of culture shock, of long-term ostracization followed by the triumphant revelation that everyone else was Wrong All Along because Binti is the Special One.

But then the story pivots and does something really interesting: something goes horribly wrong on Binti’s ship, and she’s the only survivor of an attack by the Meduse, an alien race who have long been at war with both humans and other species.

At this point, the story shifts from a fish-out-of-water narrative to a hostage situation. But then it pivots again when the Meduse reveal that they plan to infiltrate the university because a priceless possession belonging to their chief has been stolen, and they want to retrieve it. Because of Binti’s unlikely survival and her ability to communicate with them, she convinces the Meduse to have her act as their ambassador in order to protect the university.

Ultimately, Binti finds an unusual solution to the problems plaguing all parties and helps form a new truce between the humans and the Meduse. She is a kind of Special One after all, but because she was in the right place at the right time, with the right tools — she isn’t necessarily a Chosen One. Even so, her new status as a student and mediator fills her with self-doubt, because she knows that her family will never truly understand the choices she’s made. That sense of alienation and self-doubt is the most strongly sustained emotion throughout the story.

That being said, there are still things I find unsatisfying about this novella, even if it confounds my expectations in the best kind of way. Although Binti manages to convince Oomza University to give back what it stole, how she manages to do this remains mysterious. The revelatory speech that is supposed to be the crux of stories like this ends up falling flat instead, caught up in telling over showing:

I spoke of Okwu and how my otjize had really been what saved me. I spoke of the Meduse’s cold exactness, focus, violence, sense of honor, and willingness to listen. I said things I didn’t know I’d thought about or comprehended. I found words I didn’t even know I knew. And eventually, I told them how they could satisfy the Meduse and prevent a bloodbath in which everyone would lose.

I was sure they would agree. These professors were educated beyond anything I could imagine. Thoughtful. Insightful. United. Individual. The Meduse chief came forward and spoke its piece, as well. It was angry, but thorough, eloquent with a sterile logic. “If you do not give it to us willingly, we have the right to take back what was brutelly stolen from us without provocation,” the chief said.

I’m not 100% sure, but I think this scene has been written the way it is because Okorafor is trying to subvert the script that stories of this type follow. We didn’t get the fish out of water trope at the beginning, and we’re not going to get the rousing/martyred peacekeeper at the end.

There’s a lot going on under the surface of the story — I get the sense that the world of Binti is a wide one, with eons of history behind it that are only hinted at in the plot itself. There are lots of tantalizing storylines left dangling. For example, what exactly is the special device that Binti carries that proves to be her salvation? What is so special about the otzije she wears, and what gives it such healing properties?

Most importantly, exactly how much has humanity advanced when, in this far future, people are still doing the same sort of anthropological, cultural, and historical theft as they are in the world of today?

Like I said, there’s still a lot I’m sure I’m missing, but I think I understand more than I did before.

Carbide-Tipped Pens: Showcasing the Full Variety of Hard SF

Carbide-Tipped PensTitle: Carbide-Tipped Pens: Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction
Editors: Eric Choi and Ben Bova
Publisher: Tor
Format: Hardback
Rating: 3 out of 5
How I got this book: Borrowed from the library

When it comes to science fiction, most people who dismiss the genre think it consists of the same kind of buzz-cuts-and-ray-guns stuff written in the 50s. But science fiction has evolved a lot since then, and so has one of its mainstay subgenres — “Hard SF”, or science fiction that extrapolates upon our current understanding of the universe and the laws of physics.

Carbide-Tipped Pens, an anthology of hard SF stories edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi, is proof of that. Originally conceived when the two of them were together at an author signing at Ad Astra (a Toronto-based con! And Choi is also a Torontonian!), Carbide-Tipped Pens is a collection of 17 hard SF stories that seeks to showcase the state of the subgenre today and explore how it’s more than just stories that involve gussied-up physics problems.

In other words: hard SF can be just as human and sociologically dynamic as other subgenres of speculative fiction. What’s more, with current advances in technology, there’s stuff that’s scientifically possible today that would have been considered a pipe dream even two decades ago.

Personally, as a reader I gravitate towards the more literary end of the science fiction spectrum. As a result, I preferred the stories in the collection that were able to combine hard SF concepts with more formal literary techniques or with issues of identity, oppression, environmental change, and expanded modes of thinking.

Chief among these were the stories “A Slow Unfurling of Truth” by Aliette de Bodard, “Skin Deep” by Leah Petersen and Gabrielle Harbowy, “Every Hill Ends with Sky” by Robert Reed, and “Recollection” by Nancy Fulda. Respectively, they deal with topics like using biological data encryption to safeguard a lost culture’s history, the ethics surrounding medical tattoos, the depression from realizing how alone you are (in the world or the universe), and attempting to reconstruct your identity after the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Special note should also go to Kate Story’s “The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars”. It takes the plot of Romeo and Juliet and transplants it to an ice-mining operation on Europa, complete with bar brawls, reality television, cryogenic freezing and social networking. This is the kind of boundary-breaking shit I want to read!

However, those stories are the highlights for me. There were also a few misfires — stories that didn’t really engage with the full implications of the technologies they were discussing, or had protagonists what were reprehensible. The ones I liked least were “Thunderwell” by Doug Beason, “She Just Looks That Way” by Eric Choi, and “Ambiguous Nature” by Carl Frederick.

The stories by Beason and Frederick were pretty emblematic of what I consider to be the worst faults of 50s SF. They had clunky, expository writing that prizes “tell” over “show”; face-paced, rat-a-tat dialogue between one-dimensional characters; and absolutely nothing resembling true human emotion. In contrast, Choi’s story contained interesting ideas but pulled its punches at the end by revealing its protagonist to be a gullible idiot with the emotional maturity of a teenager.

The rest of the stories in the collection vary between those two extremes. There were emotionally poignant ones like “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson, about an autistic astrophysicist who rushes to reunite with his daughter while the world ends. There were also dialogue-heavy headscratchers like “Habilis” by Howard V Hendrix and “The Mandlebrot Bet” by Dirk Strasser — although these two stories featured interesting ideas, I didn’t think they were coherent enough to drive their points home.

Ultimately, I consider Carbide-Tipped Pens a success. Hard SF is about more than just rocket ships and square-jawed men trying to solve physics problems. These stories deal with people, and with new and emerging realms of science. It showcases the full variety of hard SF and interrogates the boundaries of the genre as a whole.

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