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Recent Reading: March 2019

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately: science fiction and fantasy about imperalism, anarchism, Trump-era politics, and the end of capitalism.

A colorful stack of books.
Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Born to the Blade: Season 1 by Michael R. Underwood, Marie Brennan, Malka Older, Cassandra Khaw

Serial Box, 2018.

This was tons of fun. The mash-up pitch is: Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Babylon 5. It’s got floating islands, duels with both magic and swords, intriguing politics, great worldbuilding, and nonbinary main character. Please read it at then tweet @SerialBoxPub and ask for a season 2.

I especially liked how nuanced the villains are. There’s one clear set of bad guys, Mertika, the classic imperialist power. They suck. But I loved how Quloo, Mertika’s capitalist rival, wasn’t without faults either. Quloo also sucks. In some ways, you could even argue Quloo is worse than Mertika. (I’m writing in general terms here so as to not spoil things.) I loved this nuance. A fun effect of this is that our heroes end up running around trying to stop everything from going to shit, which I think is a more interesting storyline than a “just” war against a flat villain.

The Stars Change by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Circlet Press, 2017.

The Stars Change is a queer SF romance, set on a different planet, at a university founded by Indian immigrants. It’s mostly a human populated planet, but there’s also a good number of aliens living and working there as well. The central conflict revolves around a group of likable, everyday people cooperating to try to stop a terrorist attack conducted by radicals whose slogan is “Humans First.”

I really liked this short novel because of its:

  • Indian-centric worldbuilding
  • classic pulp SF setting and feel
  • deeply ingrained intersectional feminist approach
  • compassionate and sophisticated engagement with important contemporary political themes

I will quickly recommend this book to basically anyone.

Acadie by Dave Hutchinson, 2017.

This short and fun novella is short and fun. I was able to read it in a day. I liked it. The twist near the end was fun and well-executed. An impressive amount of interesting worldbuilding is crammed into this short book.

I recommend this book if you like twists or if you like stories about genetics, human modification, and/or transhumanism.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy, 2017.

An anarchist community of squatters summons a demon to protect them. When it turns out the demon may be turning on them, the community begins to turn on itself.

I was inspired to read this in part because last year I read “The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson” by Margaret Killjoy in Strange Horizons, a fun, powerful, and heartbreaking story about trolling, capitalism, and immigration. (See my roundup of 2018 short fiction here.) I loved that story. You should go read it. So when I was looking for novellas to read (I got on a novella kick the other week, can you tell?) I decided to give this one a shot.

Margaret Killjoy has become a new favorite of mine for the way she portrays anarchists, punks, squatters, activists, trans people, and others who are generally not only on the margins of society but also underrepresented in fiction. When these people are represented, they’re all too often represented in problematic, caricatured, and/or flat ways. So it’s really a joy to read Killjoy’s writing, which compassionately and empathetically centers these voices.

In particular, I loved the collectivist community of anarchist squatters that Killjoy depicts in this book. One of my favorite books ever is The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (it has an anarchist-communist society on the moon!), and while I love that book, it takes place in another star system far in the future. It’s detached from everyday life on Earth in the early 21st century. The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion examines how people can try to live in anarchist communities now, in the present(ish) day, and it depicts squatters, punks, and activists who are currently trying to do so.

To me, the plot felt a little tight, a little too hurried. I think it would have benefited from more room to stretch. That said, the novella was long enough to be engrossing and short enough to read in a day, which is a pretty delightful length. I want to read the sequel, The Barrow Will Send What it May, and I hope that that book is able to spend more time worldbuilding and developing characters.

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Tor Books, 2017.

Wow. I totally loved this book. The way I see it, Walkaway is a book about the end of capitalism and the end of death. Which like … yes please I want to read that. I was mostly interested in reading about the end of capitalism(!), but I was also totally onboard for exploring the end of death as well, which Doctorow does here with much more nuance and sophistication than he did in his earlier Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

Let’s just pause for a moment and appreciate that here we have an intelligent, well-written novel that takes place over a span of maybe a couple decades and imagines how capitalism might end and illustrates for us the essential process by which capitalism is replaced. [Pause for a moment.] Heck yes this book is awesome!

Now let’s single out two things in particular that I loved about Walkaway.

First, throughout the book, characters get into discussions/arguments/debates about any number of topics, and these conversations can go on for pages, with the characters really diving into the arguments and exploring their implications. Perhaps some readers may get bored by these conversations or feel they are somewhat unrealistic. That was not my experience at all. I loved these conversations. I was fascinated by them and felt they were acutely realistic. I was reminded of my friend Jordan, and how he and I will often get into just these sorts of conversations. I haven’t seen him in a while, so I loved getting to vicariously enjoy these sorts of conversations while reading the novel.

Second, quite possibly my favorite thing about Walkaway is the way it imagined family and community structures. From what I can tell, this element hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in either reviews or in Cory Doctorow’s own talks about the book, so I’m thinking I may have to write an essay exploring this in more detail. But for now, I just want to point out that in the novel there are essentially two societies: “default” (which is basically today’s world nearing the point of collapse) and “walkaway,” which can be described in a lot of ways, but here I’ll sum it up as a collective of anarchist-communist co-ops. Walkaway society is formed by people who walk away from default, and the base unit of society for walkwaways isn’t the nuclear family but rather a form of community life. Walkaways mostly live together in what are essentially anarchist-communist housing co-ops. Now, one of my core research interests and artistic obsessions has to do with family and community structures, specifically with alternatives to the heteronormative nuclear family. And I find it deeply significant that, in Walkaway, the exact point at which capitalism starts to really die is when people go walkaway and begin to live in community co-ops with one another. I also find it significant that one of the main villains of the book is the father of one of the walkaways, and he does some pretty fucked up things in the name of “family.”

Lastly, this book made me happy because of its queer, transgender, and POC representation.

I tend not to reread books all that often, but I’m already itching to reread this one.

A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams

One World, 2019.

This is an A+ Trump-era anthology of politics, resistance, and hope. Some of the stories are dark and heart-wrenching, but others are warm and hopeful. See my recent Skiffy and Fanty review for more thoughts on this.

My favorite stories in the anthology are:

  • “The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders
  • “Our Aim Is Not to Die” A. Merc Rustad
  • “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right” by Sam J. Miller
  • “Riverbed” by Omar El Akkad
  • “The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves” by Violet Allen
  • “No Algorithms in the World” by Hugh Howey
  • “A History of Barbed Wire” by Daniel H. Wilson
  • “Harmony” by Seanan McGuire
  • “Now Wait for This Week” by Alice Sola Kim

If you want to read excellent science fiction short stories that feel hyper-contemporary, read this. I can practically guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation translated and edited by Ken Liu

Tor Books, 2016.

I’m a fan of Ken Liu and Liu Cixin, and I’m also a sinophile who currently lives in China and studies Chinese, so this anthology seemed like a thing I should read.

I really liked Liu Cixin’s stories in this anthology. I also liked Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence” and Hao Jingfang’s “Invisible Planets” and “Folding Beijing.” Generally speaking, I appreciated but didn’t particularly enjoy the other stories here.