Review of January Fifteenth

Review of January Fifteenth

Jeremy Brett

Rachel Swirsky. January Fifteenth. Tordotcom, 2022. Paperback. 239 pg. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-250-19894-6.

There is so very much to examine about our present right now, but ironically, a crucial issue that concerns us all has been generally overlooked in recent science fiction. The issue is economic inequality, a subject of serious concern and equally serious implications for both the future of humanity and the planet. It brings suffering and misery and hardship to countless people, and all the forces of greed and corruption seem arrayed to support it.

There’s great dramatic potential offered by an issue with such grave planetary and societal import, yet I see few stories that try to grapple with it, except as background dressing (or as an aspect and outcome of post-apocalyptic disaster). This to me represents a missed opportunity, because some of the greatest literature in any genre is that which, first, has something to say about ourselves and the human condition when subjected to immense stress and second, describes what happens when people attempt to solve vital problems. I believe the genre would greatly benefit from more stories in which people apply similar degrees of resources, thought, or effort to economic inequality. Acting with narrative boldness to counter the seeming inevitability of capitalism’s continued dominance may seem as science fictional (fantastical, even) as it gets, but the limitless reach of SF’s imagination should not preclude us from envisioning possible solutions or alternate economic pathways for ourselves, even if, as Rachel Swirsky demonstrates in her intelligent novella January Fifteenth, the consequences aren’t predictable or even, sometimes, just.

Set in a near-future United States, the novella takes place over the course of a single day, the day every American receives their yearly Universal Basic Income payment (“UBI” is defined by the Basic Income Lab at Stanford University as “a periodic cash allowance given to all citizens, without means test to provide them with a standard of living above the poverty line.” From that basic definition there are all manner of differing opinions on what qualifies as UBI or who should receive it.). Swirsky’s novella benefits from timeliness, certainly, since UBI as a method of reducing economic inequality has become a part of the national economic conversation in the USA over the last few years, with debates involving people as disparate as Andrew Yang, Hillary Clinton, economist Thomas Piketty, Bernie Sanders, and Mark Zuckerberg weighing in. It is an idea that appeals to many, and it is no wonder that Swirsky has turned her narrative gifts towards a fictional exploration of its potential impact on the complicated lives of human beings.

The novella centers four women, each from a vastly different stratum of American society and each impacted by UBI in a vastly different manner. Although the four never interact, Swirsky’s story amounts to a kind of mosaic, where the different lives and fates of the central characters come together as diverse bits making up a greater whole—the overall societal picture of UBI and the ways, great and small, that it impacts people and society. In upstate New York lives Hannah Klopfer and her two small boys—for Hannah, January 15th is a day less about economic security and opportunity and more about trauma. It is the anniversary of the day she took her boys and fled her abusive, mentally unbalanced, former wife—now stalker—Abigail. Hannah is on the run and living as quietly as she can; picking up her UBI check is a time to be watchful and scared of discovery by Abigail.

In Chicago, Janelle, a freelance reporter in a post-journalism world, scrounges at the request of news aggregator services every January 15th for man-on-the-street interviews of people and their opinions on UBI. For Janelle, an orphan who raises her 14-year-old sister Neveah alone, the day is one of predictable banalities and arguments with her firebrand liberal sister over the injustices of UBI. The story moves west into Colorado, where Olivia is a freshman in college and the child of great wealth; for her and her friends in Aspen, January 15th is “Waste Day,” where the fabulously rich compete to see who can burn through their UBI in the most dramatic and flamboyant manner. And last, there is pregnant teenager Sarah, a “sister-wife” in Utah whose “family” travels the long route on foot through Utah to pick up their UBI payments in person.

What makes Swirsky’s novella so intriguing is not that it lays out the details of a UBI-based society, nor that it explores the traditional arguments about UBI (freedom vs. dependency), but that it instead concentrates on how traumas, abuses, and everyday circumstances “affect our lives. They affect our happiness. They certainly affect how and why Universal Basic Income could change our circumstances” (Author’s Note). In the United States of the novella, UBI fails to actually solve any of the characters’ individual problems on its own, but it provides avenues and opportunities for people to evolve and change. It also, like anything else, can be a negative force: Sarah notes that “the prophet’s wives and children trekked on foot every year to protest the state’s requirement that they go in person to receive their benefits. The state claimed that it was to mitigate ‘abuses of the system,’ but everyone knew it was just another way to harass them for having different beliefs” (35). Meanwhile, the yearly UBI gives license to Olivia’s friends to be crushed under the weight of their own decadence and insecurities. And darker elements are hinted at—at one point, Janelle hears rumors of Native women being sterilized or else having their UBI withheld, and people being forced to sign loyalty oaths to receive their money. As Swirsky notes, money does not solve everything, and it can not necessarily correct injustices in an already problematic system.

The imperfections and limits of UBI are important themes of the novella, in fact. At one point, Janelle and Neveah argue over the history of the program, Neveah appealing to Janelle’s youthful liberalism. In this scene, the compromises and betrayals and hidden motives that accompany any reform are laid bare:

[Nevaeh] added, “I don’t believe you’ve really changed everything you think.”

“What I think – and what I thought – is that UBI is better than having nothing.”

Neveah started to respond. Janelle held up her hand.

Janelle continued, “What I think – and what I thought – is that we had an extraordinary moment of political will after Winter Night. The whole country was breathing a sigh of relief. We weren’t just trying to get ourselves back on track; we were trying to figure out what kind of track to get on. It was like we had this dream together of improving the world.”

“Right? So- “

“What I said was that it would be a one-shot deal. We had one sure arrow to fire from that bow. And whatever we didn’t make sure to fix then, it probably wasn’t going to get fixed for a long time.”

“You were right!”

“Yeah, I was….UBI is definitely better than having nothing.”

“But you were right about everything,” Neveah said. “You called it patchwork legislation…you said once the opposition realized UBI was definitely happening, they were going to try to make it hard to collect. Like drumming up paranoia about bank breaches to make us use checks and the mail. You said they’d start saying states needed the right to make their own rules, but they’d really mean states should be able to make people jump through hoops. You said it was ‘enshrining unequal access.’”

Janelle shrugged. “And now the law’s been written.” (55-56)

Through a single day in the lives of four wildly disparate women, each bearing their own particular emotional burdens and life experiences, January Fifteenth provides a smart and thoroughly realized series of proofs that the human element is vital to the outcome of any attempts at economic or societal restructuring. It shows how narratives of economic inequality, no matter the genre, cannot be simplistic if they are to be either remotely realistic or conducive to imaginative considerations of real-life reform. Society is complicated, people and their relationships are complicated, and realistic stories about this kind of inequality—stories we need to tell—will be complicated, too. Economic inequality is a corrosive phenomenon that threatens us all with an ever-more uncertain future, and Rachel Swirsky has done us all a great service in writing a story that thoughtfully explores the human impact of attempts to reduce it.


“What is Basic Income?” Stanford University, 5 Jan. 2023,

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.

Review of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

Review of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

Gabriela Lee

Chambers, Becky. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. Harper Voyager, 2021.

Stepping back into the world of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is a comfort. Beginning with the first novel, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and culminating in the fourth and final novel, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, Chambers creates a vibrant, messy universe where humans are just a footnote in galactic history. In fact, in the Wayfarers universe, it is the humans who need to be saved by the other alien species with superior technology; it is the humans whose status as an independent and legal species needs to be acknowledged by the Galactic Commons, the parliamentary system that governs most of the known, traveled universe.

But Chambers is not concerned with the big picture of the galaxy—she is interested in the stories of the individuals who simply live their lives, and how they navigate a world in which people (and when I say “people” I mean all the sapient beings in this universe, not just humans) travel halfway across the galaxy through what is essentially traffic-controlled wormholes but still struggle with ordinary, everyday problems. In fact, one could say that Chambers is preoccupied with the personal, and it is through the personal that she is able to connect to the universal.

It is this particular preoccupation that makes The Galaxy, and the Ground Within approachable, despite the fact that it is the only book in the series in which none of the protagonists are humans. Instead, the novel focuses on four different beings stranded on Gora, an unassuming planet in the middle of what is essentially an intersection of five busy highways in space. Because of the interstellar traffic that passes through Gora and the wait time it takes to traverse the interspatial tunnels from one part of the galaxy to the other, many businesses spring up in the area to cater to travelers waiting to cross to other parts of the galaxy, including restaurants, bath houses, and travelers’ inns. One of them is the Five-Hop One-Stop, a kitschy intergalactic bed and breakfast that welcomes all visitors, no matter the species.

The novel’s plot is fairly simple: during a routine visit to the Five-Hop One-Stop while waiting for their turn in the queue to make their space jump, three guests are stranded when a major communication satellite malfunctions in Gora airspace, rendering the transportation hub inert. While the Galactic Commons Transit Authority and Goran officials scramble to repair the satellites and get the transportation tunnels back in order again, everyone is ordered to stay at their respective habitats, effectively stranding the three guests at the Five-Hop.

One of them is an Akarak named Speaker, who is described as small and stunted, with her arms ending in hooks that allow her to swing from one pole to another. The Akaraks are considered a fringe species, existing in the margins of the civilized universe without a home planet of their own and unable to live in more civilized spaces because of their unique biological needs; namely, they breathe methane instead of oxygen and are therefore unable to live outside of mechanical suits. Another guest is the exiled Quelin, Roveg, a designer of artificial simulations for entertainment and education. The Quelin, a monolithic society that despises change and insists on the enduring permanence of their own culture, branded Roveg a traitor after he was identified as the creator of narrative simulators that challenged Quelin ideology. Though he has since recuperated his career and finances, he is still permanently cut off from his family and home. The final guest is the Aeluon military cargo captain Pei, a character we briefly meet in the first book, as she heads to a secret rendezvous with her human lover. The Aeluons are considered one of the “Big Three” species that established the Galactic Commons and are generally considered one of the most advanced species in the universe. However, because of biological and social expectations, such as a declining birth rate, Aeluons are generally discouraged from romantic relationships with other species. Rounding out the cast of characters are Ouloo and her offspring, Tupo, a Laru mother-and-child who run the transit stop. Ouloo struggles with raising her child with a wealth of options while at the same time trying to figure out her place in the wider galaxy; similarly, the adolescent Tupo struggles to figure out their place in the world while they grow into their body and gender identity. The Laru are described as long-necked and fur-covered, are in part identified by their strange gaits—commonly alternating their walking style between two and four limbs—and are widespread across the galaxy, so much so that they no longer have any meaningful or traditional ties to their own home world.

The enforced proximity of the five characters reveals lines of tension. For instance, Pei’s work in a military-adjacent career is constantly challenged by Speaker, whose entire species was almost wiped out during a planet-side war generations ago, but the effects are still being felt in the present. Roveg’s exile also becomes a sore subject for him, especially when he confronts his own prejudices against Speaker and Pei, as well as his own personal philosophy of maintaining neutrality at the expense of everything else. However, the manufactured closeness also unveils intersections of commonality between everyone. Speaker’s reluctance at revealing her worry for her missing sister, Tracker, changes as Roveg and Ouloo attempt to help her find alternative means of communication outside the habitat. Pei’s frustration at the way by which her species are discouraged from entering relationships outside of their people boils over when she is faced with the choice of whether to be a mother, and though Aeluon motherhood is nothing like human motherhood, the choice still remains. Even Ouloo is challenged by the extended presence of visitors in her habitat and how their needs clash with the needs of her son.

Unlike many SF novels, Chambers smoothly gets around the thorny problem of exposition and explaining how the world works by utilizing short intermission pages that occur between chapters. They take the shape of planetwide bureaucratic announcements from the Galactic Commons Transit Authority that update the shelter-in-place policies around Gora. This allows readers to follow both the passage of time as well as provide ongoing updates of the events happening outside the Five-Hop. Similarly, Chambers uses the character of Tupo as a reader intermediary: as the youngest character, Tupo can easily shift between the four adults and ask questions, thereby expanding on our understanding of how each character sees each other and themselves. Although she consistently reminds the readers of the significant differences between the five protagonists—especially during the denouement of the novel, in which Pei, Roveg, Speaker, and Ouloo all have very different approaches and actions towards Tupo’s accidental poisoning—the novel seamlessly integrates their characters through constant interactions within each chapter.

In fact, it is very easy to forget that one is reading a story in which there are minimal mentions of humans or humanity. Chambers’ writing shines as she writes through the complexities of imagined species and cultures and touches on our own complex cultures as well. Though some may consider The Galaxy, and the Ground Within a slow novel in which nothing of note happens (which is a valid critique, especially if one expects a science fiction novel to be full of action) I would argue instead that the novel refracts and defamiliarizes genre tropes in SF and provides an alternate way of thinking about belonging and alienation in an unfamiliar space. It is to Chambers’ credit that The Galaxy, and the Ground Within welcomes the wayfaring reader with open arms.

Gabriela Lee teaches creative writing and children’s literature at the Department of English & Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines. Her second collection of SF short stories, A Playlist for the End of the World (University of the Philippines Press, 2022), was just released. She recently received a National Children’s Book Award in the Philippines for her children’s book, Cely’s Crocodile: The Story and Art of Araceli Limcaco Dans (Tahanan Books, 2020). She is currently a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. You can learn more about her and her work at

Review of Black Sun

Review of Black Sun

Athira Unni

Roanhorse, Rebecca. Black Sun. Saga Press, 2020.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s epic fantasy novel Black Sun (2020) was received fondly by readers and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2021. The book is the first part of the Between Earth and Sky series with its sequel Fevered Star (2022) already out. Drawing upon Polynesian and pre-Columbian American cultures, the novel explores the theme of embracing one’s destiny and ideas of celestial balance, sacrifice, vengeance, and justice. In a thrilling story that invokes a fresh, magical world, Xiala, a sea captain belonging to a mermaid-race, oversees the transportation of Serapio, the Crow God, across time for a celestial event called the Convergence in the city of Tova. Serapio was ritually blinded by his mother and trained by three capable tutors to prepare him for what awaits him in Tova. Xiala’s crew must be convinced of their mission with half-truths and she does not know Serapio’s true power until the very end.

Guided by the watchers and the sun priest, the people of Tova are not expecting the reborn Crow God to land on their shores. The four Sky Made clans of Tova—the Golden Eagle, the Water Strider, the Winged Serpent, and the Carrion Crow—exist mostly in peace except for the mournful Carrion Crow clan who have not forgotten the Night of Knives, a massacre of its members by the priesthood that led to the rise of Serapio as the Crow God. Naranpa, the sun priest who has raised herself from poverty to the highest echelons of the priesthood, and Okoa, the warrior prince of the Carrion Crow clan, are the other two major characters in the narrative.

The political intrigue in the fantasy world that Roanhorse builds makes the story interesting. The conflicting interests of the Sky Made Clans, Naranpa’s feeling of alienation inside the priesthood, and Serapio’s ambiguity towards his own power drive the narrative. The character of Serapio is a fantasy archetype, but he is an unlikely villain consumed as much by a thirst for vengeance as he is by a similar desire for justice: “…vengeance can be for spite. It can eat you up inside, take from you everything that makes you happy, makes you human” (350). Serapio considers himself to be the Crow God, commanding his flock of crows to attack, serve, and intimidate anyone who crosses him. Serapio’s loss of eyesight grants him a greater vision with the help of ‘star pollen,’ which he relies upon just as Xiala relies on her song to calm the seas and influence men. As a seafaring Teek, Xiala is good at leading her crew but is treated as an outsider because of her race. The character of Xiala makes readers confront their prejudices, overturning gendered expectations. There are other women in the story such as Naranpa and the Matrons of the Sky Made Clans who serve as leaders, while men serve as warriors or ‘knives.’ Such characters help readers understand the otherness felt by marginalised groups to some extent.

The landscapes in the novel extend from the Obregi Mountains to the Crescent Sea, and to the Cities of Cuecola and Tova. The descriptions of the places are sparse but are fleshed out in conversations and some illuminating phrases. At the beginning of each chapter, the location of action and days in relation to the Convergence is mentioned, situating the narrative for the reader. The Convergence is an eclipse event that takes place when three suns align in a single line and are obscured by the moon completely. Members of the priesthood undertake ritualised practices, including the Day of Shuttering when they strictly stay indoors. The title of the novel itself invokes this solstice event in which the sun disappears during a period of cosmic alignment. The indigenous way of narrating is to place it alongside temporal and regional markers populating the story world. Roanhorse does this with ease and an elegance that makes the novel immersive.

Compared to N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Roanhorse’s first novel allows for magical thinking that does not centre the apocalyptic tone too prominently. Jemisin’s novels carry the weight of a post-apocalypse, but Roanhorse crafts vivid characters and an exciting narrative with the Convergence revealing Serapio’s true power. The vengeful destruction that Serapio unleashes can be seen in two ways. The massacre of the Night of the Knives can be seen to justify Serapio’s anger, but Serapio does not feel like he belongs to the Carrion Crow clan at all, having been brought up as a weapon. With an anti-hero at the centre of the narrative, Roanhorse weaves a memorable story that can be taken forward in interesting ways. The ambiguity of Serapio’s character compares to Jemisin’s female protagonist in her trilogy, although the latter is a much more complex character due to her maternal role, and her duty in saving/re-making the ‘broken’ earth.

The characters of Serapio and Xiala are set up as binary opposites in terms of the powers they wield. While Serapio summons the shadow into him, Xiala casts her song out into the world. These oppositional forces allow for a balance in the narrative and an interesting juxtaposition that is also gendered. Xiala’s queer sexuality and Serapio’s chosen celibacy allow for their companionship to develop in a striking way. Towards the end of the novel, Serapio’s destiny is realized in some sense, with consequences, and Xiala is left to wonder at his power. Roanhorse sets up the two characters to respond to each other and their conversations reveal the differences in how they think about their respective journeys. While Serapio feels like he has been brought up for a purpose, Xiala lives from day to day with a mission to get her crew across the Crescent Sea to Tova and reap the rewards of such a journey. Roanhorse’s novel also invokes the idea of befriending pain in relation to training the mind and the body, with Serapio’s tutors teaching him that sacrifice is essential to fulfill one’s destiny.

The novel is a good example of speculative fiction that values diversity of characters in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. In a world that increasingly recognizes the importance of inclusive thinking and representation, Roanhoarse’s novel makes for a satisfying read that shows us how indigenous life can be portrayed in a fascinating manner. The fantastical world that Roanhorse developed is sure to inspire more speculative fiction writers to come up with similar works that will show how various indigenous people have lived in conjunction with the natural world, with knowledge of celestial events and clans that protected and fought for their kin.

Athira Unni is a PhD candidate at Leeds Beckett University, UK. Her PhD thesis is on dystopian and utopian fiction from South Asia and the Caribbean. Her research interests include women’s writing, utopian studies, postcolonial studies, studies of the Anthropocene, memory studies and 20th-century American poetics.

Review of Moon Knight

Review of Moon Knight

Jeremy Brett

Slater, Jeremy, creator. Moon Knight, Marvel Studios, 2022.

It is interesting to watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe begin to explore the wider cosmologies that undergird the franchise’s framework. Generally speaking, it wasn’t until the introduction of Dr. Stephen Strange and Dormammu’s Mirror Dimension in 2016 and then T’Challa’s visions of Wakanda’s Ancestral Plane in Black Panther (2018) that audiences started seeing how the MCU consists of overlapping dimensions populated by what we would refer to as gods, magic-users, and vast alien entities, combining into a boundless cosmology humans experience through radical shifts in reality. The most intriguing example of the MCU’s cosmological perspective and its relationship to human existence comes with the Disney+ series Moon Knight. The series is also a fascinating exploration of the ways in which humans, emotionally broken and scattered, construct their own identities and realities as crucial survival strategies. Moon Knight’s central conceit, in fact, involves the physical and psychological impact of clashing perceptions of reality—on an intimate personal level as well as a multidimensional universal one.

Moon Knight is fascinating in part because of its cosmological infusion with elements of Egyptian mythology that in the MCU form an actual dimensional plane of reality. The Ennead are the Egyptian pantheon, and include the moon god Khonshu. Khonshu has adopted American mercenary Marc Spector (Oscar Isaac) as his avatar and dispenser of justice—his Moon Knight. Overtly, the series pits Spector/Khonshu against cult leader Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke): Harrow seeks to revive the goddess Ammit, who balances a person’s virtues against their sins and directs their posthumous fate accordingly. However, a far deeper conflict is at work, giving the series a much more complex and profound dramatic richness. The show features another chief protagonist, Steven Grant (also Isaac), a humble museum gift shop employee. Before too long, we see Steven and Marc are separate personalities sharing Marc’s body at different moments. Radically different personalities, in fact—Steven is bumbling and nonviolent, Marc effortlessly physical and a skilled fighter. They even appear as Moon Knight differently – Marc as the classic comic book image of Moon Knight (a caped, cloaked Batman-like figure) while Steven is dapper in a snow-white suit.

The MCU’s new emphasis on structural cosmic complexity is skillfully mirrored in the series’ dramatic demonstration of human psychological complexity. It is interesting to note how Steven and Marc both work at self-definition through the establishment of distinct identities—particularly Steven, who until the series’ conclusion strenuously defines himself in opposition to Marc. Convinced of the truth of his own values and personal history, Steven insists on his existence as an independent being with autonomy. His experiences may resonate with viewers conscious of the personal and psychological importance of controlling and defining their own identities and the ways in which they present themselves to the world at large. Moon Knight may not become an icon for gender identity, but his/their struggle with their own sense of being will be familiar to those needing such an icon.

On a grander level, the struggle for the world plays out on two distinct levels in the series. The last episode makes this explicitly visible in the series’ final fight, where Ammit and Khonshu battle each other unseen on one plane of existence while Marc/Steven and Marc’s wife Layla (May Calamawy) fight Harrow and his devotees in the “real” physical streets of Cairo. It is a concrete expression of the ways in which reality is perceived differently at different moments by different people. On an emotional level, however, this struggle for a fair and workable reality is much more poignant in reference to Marc’s character evolution. We find that Marc, as a child, suffered grievous emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his unbalanced mother, who blamed Marc for the death of his younger brother. The traumatized Marc created Steven as a psychological shield to insulate the best parts of himself from his mother’s abuse. The intimate battle at the series’ heart – the work that Marc and Steven do to, if not reunite, then reconcile themselves and their realities to one another—is what gives Moon Knight its emotional complexity. Indeed, this struggle is made most manifest when, during the hallucinatory journey via boat towards the Duat (the afterlife), Steven sacrifices himself to save Marc, leading Marc towards the realization that the two need each other to be whole, that each gives to and supports the other in ways that make them into a full human being together. Marc confesses to Steven, frozen and dead outside the Gates of Osiris, “You are the only superpower I ever had.” Shared realities can give strength and endurance where a single reality cannot do the job.

Moon Knight complicates the issue of perceiving reality by presenting Steven and Marc as holding drastically opposing emotions, worldviews, and life experiences. Which of their realities is “true” if both individuals are experiencing vastly different lives? Moon Knight asks its viewers to question our relationships to the world around us and the complicated connection between mind and body. Of course, that last connection has long been a part of humanity’s relationship to its various conceptions of the divine—when we touch the metaphysical, how much of our experience is tangible and how much an intangible projection of our inner selves? As the series progresses, we see an ongoing deepening of the levels of existence through which humanity moves day-to-day, as well as continuing evidence of the MCU’s new focus on the relationship between humans and the divine, or at least the multidimensional beings identifying as “divine.” (I appreciate, speaking of this, the reveal that Marc is Jewish—the first identified Jewish superhero in the MCU.)

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.

Review of “The Conquest of Gola” and Other Stories by Leslie F. Stone

Review of “The Conquest of Gola” and Other Stories by Leslie F. Stone

Sue Smith

Weinbaum, Batya, editor. “The Conquest of Gola”: and Other Stories by Leslie F. Stone. JustFiction, 2021.

In her edition of “The Conquest of Gola” and Other Stories, Batya Weinbaum convincingly argues for a closer critical evaluation of the work of Leslie F. Stone, a Jewish-American woman author who wrote during science fiction’s pulp and golden ages. In brief, Weinbaum’s intent is to highlight Stone’s contributions to science fiction written from a Jewish female perspective and understood from within the context of 1930s America. According to Weinbaum, the value of exploring Stone’s work in this period is to acknowledge and appreciate her unspoken political view and desire for a more inclusive world. For Weinbaum, Stone’s political outlook can be found in her science fiction work in a subtext of race and gender that presents a complex negotiation between insider-outsider identities vying for acceptance and ultimately, assimilation. This recurring theme in Stone’s work, according to Weinbaum, presents the plight of the Jewish immigrant in alien form at a time when Jews were persecuted and viewed with suspicion in America. As Weinbaum argues, sensitive to the Jewish predicament, the key theme in Stone’s stories is the Jewish desire for Americanization, a goal pursued by both first- and second-generation Jews.

To give an overview of the collection, the edition begins with a preface, an introduction and five main stories, which are bookended by two short pieces of writing. The first is titled “Letters of the Twenty Fourth Century” (1929) and the second is the appendix, which is titled, “Day of the Pulps” (1997). To give a brief overview of these works, “Letters of the Twenty Fourth Century” features a male narrator who produces an up-beat letter to a friend about life in a bright new technological future. “Day of the Pulps” is Stone herself addressing a contemporary readership in 1997. In this address, Stone provides commentary about her writing career during the 1930s alongside her expressed desire to restart her career in later years. In a more sombre tone, Stone also includes in her discussion the reason for exiting science fiction at the end of World War II. As Weinbaum points out in her comment on the final piece, it was Stone’s Jewish beliefs in Kaballahism, in which words are believed to give life to what they describe, that brought Stone to the idea that it was her writing of science fiction that contributed to America’s decision to use nuclear weapons to end the conflict with Japan.

Situated between Stone’s initial optimism for the future and final dismay at the technological turn in WWII are the five main stories that showcase her utopian ideas of acceptance and the assimilation of diverse populations. At the start of each story, there is Weinbaum’s supporting explanation of cultural trends in science fiction alongside the social and historical events at the time, which help to foreground the relevance of Stone’s work. To sum up briefly: the five main stories are in chronological order and map out Stone’s science fiction that covers common themes of evolution, eugenics, sex, and race by using the trope of the human-alien encounter. In “Men with Wings” (1929) and “Women with Wings” (1930), two stories that focus on genetic engineering and the evolution of the human species, humans have progressed by evolving and developing the ability to fly. To ensure their survival, social progress depends on cooperation between the sexes by accepting human and alien alike in order to create a single species of winged human founded on a mutual respect for species diversity and racial difference. In contrast, “The Conquest of Gola” (1931) presents a battle-of-the-sexes scenario as an all-female society fights off a male invasion. “The Conquest of Gola” explores the limitations placed on women by an American patriarchal society as formidable female aliens refuse to be assimilated by their male counterparts. Instead, they, as a species, remain intact, and with their knowledge of science, keep their power and independence. Finally, in “The Fall of Mercury” (1935) and “The Human Pets on Mars” (1936), Stone turns to the tale of the space pioneer as humans from Earth meet aliens on Mercury and Mars. Again, it is the human-alien that Weinbaum argues reflects anxiety felt at the time over the Jewish presence in America. While the key idea in these stories is to promote similarities between species in order to establish a common ground in which to gain acceptance and find agreement, it is, as in “The Fall of Mercury,” the niggling persistence of the “foreign body” that threatens the stability of identity in these opposing societies.

Weinbaum’s academic quest to collect Stone’s writing into a single volume is motivated by a desire to let the voice of a Jewish-American woman writer be heard. Indeed, Weinbaum’s passion and choice to focus on Stone is a worthy project offering insight into one woman’s response to the precarity of gender and race between the two World Wars. Although Weinbaum makes it clear that Stone often wrote from the perspective of a male character, Weinbaum’s insight into cultural trends in science fiction, which she thoughtfully interweaves into the social and historical events of the time, provides a rich context within which to read Stone’s work from a Jewish feminist perspective.

Sue Smith has an interest in feminist science fiction with a focus on cyborgs, disability and gender. She has published articles on disability and cyborg fiction in FEMSPEC (2010), David Bolt’s edited book, Changing Social Attitudes Towards Disability (2014), BMJ: Medical Humanities (2016), Journal of Literary and Cultural Disabilities Studies (2017-2020); Journal of Transcultural Psychiatry (2020); and she has provided book reviews for a range of journals.

Review of The People’s Republic of Everything

Review of The People’s Republic of Everything

Sébastien Doubinsky

Mamatas, Nick. The People’s Republic of Everything. Tachyon Publications, 2018.

Nick Mamatas (born 1972) is an award-nominated American fantasy, horror and speculative fiction and non-fiction writer, known for his anarchist political commitment. His most well-know works are the novels Move Under Ground (2005), I am Providence (2016), Second Shooter (2021) and his non-fiction book, Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life (2011).

The People’s Republic of Everything is his fourth short stories collection. It is comprised of 14 short stories and Under My Roof, a novella-length story. It draws upon multiple genres, from political steampunk (“Arbeitskraft”) to science fiction (“Walking with a Ghost”), social-realism (“North Shore Friday”) and dystopian fiction (“Under My Roof”). Although there is no real narrative nor thematic unity in the volume, Mamatas’s peculiar irony and political views can be seen as the red thread connecting the stories.

We can, however, loosely regroup them under three main categories: political, realistic and poetic. The works making up the first of these categories are “Arbeitskraft”, “The People’s Republic of Everything,” “The Glottal Stop,” “We Never Sleep,” and “Under My Roof.” Under the banner of “realistic” are “Tom Silex, Spirit Smasher,” “The Phylactery,” “North Shore Friday,” “A Howling Dog,” and “Lab Rat”. Finally, “Walking with a Ghost,” “The Great Armored Train,” “Slice of Life,” “The Spook School,” and “The Dreamer of the Day” form the poetic corpus.

The stories that are contained in the political category perfectly illustrate Nick Mamatas’s anarchistic views. “Arbeitsskraft,” for example, imagines Engels, Marx’s friend and co-author, as a Frankenstein-inspired steampunk character set on creating a collective, revolutionary mind based on dialectal materialism with the help of cyborg-like match girls. In the same manner, “We Never Sleep” features Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the fuel bearing his name, as a crazy scientist living in an underground laboratory in a parallel world setting and creating a brand new ideology with the help of a pulp writer. In these stories, Mamatas uses his anarchist position to make fun of and criticize both capitalism’s and communism’s positivist ideology, putting them back-to-back in their dangerous delusion. With the novellaUnder My Roof”, Mamatas turns to a more Pynchonesque or Vonnegutian style of story, in which family man Daniel Weinberg builds a nuclear weapon in his basement with the help of his son and secedes from the United States by founding the free state of “Weinbergia.” Beyond the wacky humoristic narration, Mamatas tackles the notions of nation, freedom, and domestic politics in a way reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s political writings.

The realistic stories uncover a lesser-known and more personal aspect of Mamatas’s narratives. Although they more or less belong to the noir, speculative fiction or weird horror genres, they stand out as being built on more personal aspects of Mamatas’s life. It is an interesting choice of works and it pushes the collection towards a fictional self-portrait of the author that we could definitely link with some Philip K. Dick’s works. “The Phylactery,” for instance, is based on Greek traditions and family anecdotes before moving into specific territory. It also gives the traditional Mamatas reader or a newcomer insight into how his fiction can be built on personal references and how it is transmogrified in the stories. Obvious non-genre references that come to mind are Jack Kerouac’s Dr. Sax, which is a pulp horror tale combined with childhood memories told in stream-of-consciousness style, or William S. Burroughs’s series of novels, which blend first-hand experiences and nightmarish visions. In that way, Mamatas seems to be continuing the Beat tradition and pointing at creative possibilities in their wake, an echo of what he did with his 2005 Beat and Cosmic Horror novel, Move Under Ground.

Finally, we come to a set of stories that moves away from classical genre definitions and that could fall into the “poetic” field in the largest sense possible. In “Walking with a Ghost”, the main character, Melanie, creates a virtual version of Lovecraft, which has become sentient. By blending the figure of the founder of cosmic horror into a speculative fiction A. I. narrative through anecdotes linked to Melanie’s life, Mamatas displaces the traditional tropes of horror and future technology to the periphery of the story, and chooses to focus instead on the strange relationship between his main character and Lovecraft, creating a strangely poetic moment. The same can be said of “The Great Armored Train”, in which Leon Trotsky is confronted by a supernatural phenomenon during the 1917 Russian Revolution, more precisely the ability of a young woman to transform into a lethal owl. Here, by leaving the truth undecided (is the transformation real, or, as Trotsky is convinced, just an illusion?), Mamatas manages to suspend the reader’s disbelief, which is one of the essences of poetry. Once again, Mamatas proves his reluctance as a writer to be easily categorized and the fact that a genre cannot be reduced to a list of tropes and styles.

If The People’s Republic of Everything is not a truly coherent collection, it will nonetheless be of interest to the classic Mamatas readers precisely because of its wide range of styles and stories and for any reader because of the multiple influences that one can find within or behind their constructions. It also questions many definitions of genres (from horror to speculative fiction, and even steampunk, for that matter), as it chooses to veer towards the literary instead of the usual plots and structures. Yevgueny Zamyatin, Karel Čapek, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs are more obvious references than, say, Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick and Vernor Vinge. The People’s Republic of Everything is therefore a bit of a side-track in Nick Mamatas’ works, but interesting precisely because of its undefinable and undefining nature

Seb Doubinsky is a bilingual French dystopian writer and poet. He is the author of the City-States Cycle, comprising, among others, The Babylonian Trilogy, The Song Of Synth, Missing Signal, The Invisible, and Paperclip. Missing Signal, published by Meerkat Press, won the Bronze Foreword Reviews Award in the Best Science-Fiction Novel category in 2018. He lives in Denmark with his family and teaches literature, history and culture in the French department of Aarhus University.

Review of Hunting by Stars

Review of Hunting by Stars

Jeremy Carnes

Dimaline, Cherie. Hunting by Stars. Abrams, 2021.

Content Warning: This novel and review discuss Residential Schools in Canada, which may be distressing or triggering for some readers. It also contains some spoilers for The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.

Hunting by Stars is the highly anticipated follow up to Cherie Dimeline’s (Métis) 2017 novel The Marrow Thieves. Both novels tell the story of a dystopian Canada after people lose the ability to dream. A lack of dreams eventually leads to a lack of sleep and, by extension, a fundamentally changed society. However, in the midst of collapse, settlers in Canada learn that Indigenous people are still actively dreaming; in an effort to determine why Indigenous peoples still have access to their dreams, the Canadian government develops centers to imprison, study, and experiment on Indigenous individuals. The system is based on the residential schools common in the 19th and 20th centuries, where Indigenous youth were separated from their communities and cultures, had their hair cut, and were violently “educated” according to Western cultural standards. In fact, the Native characters throughout both books refer to each of these centers as schools; some of them were built atop the bones of the old residential schools, themselves covering the bones of Indigenous youths. Settler society and systems of power repeat themselves again.

While The Marrow Thieves introduces its readers to a cadre of characters that comprise a found family as they run from recruiters, soldiers sent to capture Indigenous people to take them to the schools, Hunting by Stars focuses more on the violent settler system itself. In many ways, this is a book about the ways settler colonial education extends tendrils into young Indigenous minds in an effort to drive out their communities and cultural ontologies. Of course, it is equally about the violence enacted upon Indigenous peoples in general to extract seemingly necessary resources, in this case dreams.

In The Marrow Thieves, readers follow Frenchie, a Métis teenager, as he watches his brother get kidnapped by recruiters. That same brother, Mitch, returns in Hunting by Stars as a brainwashed worker for the settlers in the schools. As Frenchie continues to resist the violent invasions into his mind and body, Mitch continually reminds him of the ways that the school’s program helped him and how it will help Frenchie and others. After all, as Mitch admits, it’s better to be working for the schools than to be killed in them. Throughout the novel, Frenchie must toe the line between working for the schools as an act and becoming conditioned to believe the worst in his communities because of the school’s violent indoctrination, a balancing act made poignant by his found family outside the school and his brother inside urging him toward assimilation.

The school, the stand-in for the systemic oppression of Indigenous communities, doles out violence again and again as the program works to keep “residents” calm and obedient. In some of the most difficult passages from either book, Hunting by Stars describes torture designed to claw into the psyche of “residents” and consume them from the inside out. As Frenchie undergoes much of this torture, his hopes and dreams, fears and desires are laid bare as he confronts the traumas he’s faced and the utter loneliness he is made to feel through complete isolation. The system and the individuals who design and run it understand that a central goal of the program must be driving a wedge between “residents” and their families and communities. Many of Frenchie’s strengths in The Marrow Thieves are found in his family; his weaknesses are exploited in Hunting by Stars when he is separated from them.

While Frenchie’s perspective was the sole one in The Marrow Thieves, Hunting by Stars cycles through the perspectives of various characters, many of whom readers already know. Miigwans (Miig), the stand-in father figure for Frenchie and his partner Isaac take the found family away from the recruiters to protect the others while Rose, Frenchie’s love interest, begins the journey to the nearest school to try to rescue Frenchie. For tension’s sake, she is accompanied by Derrick, another boy around her age who is also vying for her affections.

Thus, much like its predecessor, Hunting by Stars is a book about communal connection. It examines the search for connection against the power of huge systems: settler colonialism, capitalism, and nationalism. It explores the fallout of violently forced disconnection. In all of this, it never forgets that systems are maintained by people and people are blinded by systems. In as much as systems are maintained, they are often done so through a process of blinding: a skewing of knowledge or understanding, a cloaking of truth, a redirection of desire. Oppressed communities then come to serve the larger system that continually keeps them oppressed; this is most clear in the character of Mitch.

Throughout these broad conversations that examine the social systems dictating our lives, Hunting by Stars considers local levels of relationality and oppression. From alliances found in the most unexpected of places to the appropriation of Indigenous cultures by New Agism in the time of dreamlessness, Dimaline takes particular care to show that love and demoralization both come in the closest of spaces. She also makes sure that we continually remember that loss happens here as well–marking it as personal, bodily as much as it is communal and collective.

While this particular novel, and its predecessor, might see most use in Indigenous literature or science fiction courses, there is applicability broadly through the analogous ways this novel gestures toward the historical backdrop of settler colonialism in Canada and the United States. One of the best pedagogical applications lies in the central metaphor of the novel itself—residential schools in Canada. Both The Marrow Thieves and Hunting by Stars are young adult novels that circle around the generational trauma caused by the residential school system and the ways by which Western education has had deleterious effects on Indigenous communities broadly. From the specifics of the residential school system to the broader connections across settler colonial policies, Indigenous language revitalization, and communal ceremony and connection, Hunting by Stars could play a pivotal role in many different cultural or historical studies courses.

At its very foundation, then, Hunting by Stars is a book about resistance and remembering. As Miig notes, “They never win when we remember.” The act of remembering and connecting is both about resisting and building a world that looks better than the one that Frenchie, Rose, and the others are living in now. Centrally, the book returns to the responsibility of ancestors—those that came before and will come after. Dimaline returns to the central mantra: “Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one who’ll be alive to live it.” In the end, community, language, and land are what matter fundamentally.

Jeremy M. Carnes is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Central Florida. He is working on his first book on comics by Indigenous creators and the affordances of comics as a visual medium for considering land-based practices by Indigenous communities. He is also co-editing a collection titled The Futures of Cartoons Past: The Cultural Politics of X-Men: The Animated Series with Nicholas E. Miller and Margaret Galvan. He is reviews editor for Studies in American Indian Literature.

Review of The Seep

Review of The Seep

Lucy Nield

Chana Porter. The Seep. Soho Press, 2020. Hardcover, 216 pg. $20.99. ISBN 978-1-6412-9-0869.

Chana Porter’s debut novel The Seep is a vibrant and colourful piece of fiction. Often called a Utopian novel, Porter’s science fiction explores the deepest depths of ‘being human,’ freedom, and what matters to the ‘individual.’ The Seep appear to be an alien hive-mind-esque species who slowly take over the world and use human beings as hosts. The world abruptly changes around the humans who choose to live through this invasion. Those who remain can either accept and embrace the Seep, fight against them, or escape to the Compounds which are void of the Seep’s influence. Those who welcome the Seep begin to change, resulting in the human condition becoming something malleable and unstable. Concepts of mortality, death, love, grief, and sadness all come as part of the package deal of ‘being human,’ but the Seep challenge this and strive to remove the more difficult human attributes from everyone they encounter. Porter’s almost phantasmagorical narrative explores humanity, loss and the ever-changing world in which we live in. In using the unusual guise of “The Softest invasion” by all-loving aliens who want to suffocate all pain and unhappiness out of the world, Porter forces the reader to confront the knowledge that mortality and grief are built into the very fabric of who we are (3). The Fantasy Hive rightly notes that Porter’s novel ‘marks the emergence of a crucial new voice in speculative fiction,’ as this striking novel delves deep into ‘what it means to be human.’ Porter certainly does this and more; through her exploration of humanity in her speculative fiction, she also reaches into the realms of the individual. From the marginalized, the silenced and the ignored, Porter offers every individual a voice that can be heard, leaving no one behind.

The novel is set slightly in the future, in a society not completely different from our own. Humans are concerned with longevity, relationships and affairs influenced by capitalism; the difference is that the Seep are here, and intend to stay, and so the world will never be the same. The novel begins by telling us that “The Seep had already infiltrated their city’s water supply. They were already compromised, already bodily hosts to our new friends” (9). We are introduced to our characters at a dinner party, because during the initial alien invasion “throwing a dinner party was all Trina and Deeba could think to do,” surrounding themselves with like-minded people and old friends to watch the apparent end of the world, as it was engulfed by the Seep (7).

Quickly, the novel has familiar echoes of other omnibenevolent-alien-invasion narratives. A distinct similarity unites the Seep of Porter’s novel with Yivo, a sentient tentacle monster from Futurama’s “The Beast of a Billion Backs” (2008). Yivo loves all humans and wants only love in return. Before contact, characters in the year 3,000 are terrified of Yivo, but once contact is made, all fear of the tentacle fades away, with love and unity in its place: “thou shalt love the tentacle.” This distinct change of attitude of the humans, towards the sentient species that has come to Earth, is also seen in The Seep: “Eventually, everyone understood that those who had already made contact with the aliens felt fine about the extraterrestrial invasion, while those who had not felt no shortage of panic, despair, rage, and powerlessness” (11).

The reaction to this abrupt attitude change indeed fuels several of the concerns that linger throughout the narrative, without any drastic crescendo. Concerns and issues flicker throughout this novel, such as societal constructs and ideology, freedom, ethics, theories of reality, and the trustworthiness of human perception. The whole novel flickers with uncanniness and uncertainties that help the narrative thrive and encourage you to push on through the unfamiliar territory. At the beginning of the novel, characters at Trina’s dinner party question life and the numbness of it all, leading Trina to question her own reality: “what did Trina believe in with total certainty? [..] what was more mutable than her own perceptions?” (7). There seems to be a thin layer of ideological suggestions painted throughout the novel’s pages, which add to the uncertainty and questionable sanity surrounding the behavior of everyone in the novel.

After several years of The Seep taking over, Trina is unhappy as everything is different. The Seep know this an constantly harass Trina, trying to get inside her to remove all the sadness, “We are revealing the sadness you carry around you like a coat, like a skin. Let us in, let us in, let us in…” (151). The world has completely changed; the Seep have removed war, famine, and disease. Capitalism has fallen. The Seep “took away money and illness, the sickness of the land, the poison in the water and the air,” and can provide humans with anything they desire (177). Now humans can do whatever they choose; they do not have to work and can choose longevity and immortality; once you have connected with the Seep death becomes “an opt-in procedure,” one that you can choose to participate in or not (44). Human experience has been augmented and manipulated by the Seep, into something distant and unrecognizable. The Seeped human experience has familiar elements of the intoxicated aesthetic quality found in Jeff Noon’s Vurt, in which humans long to remain in a drug-like state of adventure or euphoria brought on by Vurt-feathers. Individuals choose to drink Seeped punch and release Seep into the air to make their music more enjoyable, enter into euphoric and aggressive orgies, or change themselves somehow. Once connected with The Seep, humans can feel the pain of buildings of stone, can choose to grow antlers, or be young forever. But they can never, ever be alone.

Whilst many may call this text a Utopia, I would push to label this text, as Margaret Atwood might, as an Ustopia. As Atwood states, Ustopia is a combination of “utopia and dystopia—the imagined perfect society and its opposite—because […] each contains a latent version of the other. In addition to being, almost always, a mapped location, Ustopia is also a state of mind, as is every place in literature of whatever kind.” Atwood uses examples such as ‘Hell’ as a place and a concept in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, because “In literature, every landscape is a state of mind, but every state of mind can also be portrayed by a landscape. And so, it is with Ustopia.” Atwood’s definition of an Ustopia describes Porter’s novel appropriately due to the uncertainty within the novel and the clear and defined binaries we are confronted with throughout the text.

The uncertainty of the novel does not only refer to the Seep themselves, their agenda, and the dramatic changes society is embracing (or rejecting), but also the uncertainty of what is “real,” in many of the scenes. Often, it is uncertain whether the places Trina visits are a memory, artificial, or reality and many occurrences are described in such a drunken-dreamlike way it is difficult to know whether one is reading about a real-time event in a mapped location or being taken on a walk-through of Trina’s mind. The defined binaries I mention refer to the drastic attitude changes characters have, from mortal fear to a deep respect and love, calling the Seep “our greatest teachers” as the abuses of the Seep simultaneously occur (25). Some use the Seep knowledge for the good of mankind, such as in the medical field, whilst other’s use the Seep to excess, forcing groups of people into hordes of orgy-like frenzies or stealing other people’s faces and wearing them. Porter acknowledges that even in a utopian future swaddled by sentient and benevolent aliens, there will always be a darker, dystopian underbelly.

Whilst this novel is a speculative piece that focuses on pain, mortality, and grief as vital human attributes, Porter also explores the physicality of the human and individual perceptions of the human body. By centering human characters that desire to change their bodies or become something nonhuman altogether, the novel acknowledges that part of who we are is retained in the core of our bodies and trapped beneath our very skin: “Our bodies may be containers, but they still carry specific histories. And these histories are still meaningful. Of course, The Seep doesn’t understand that – they’re amorphous beings with no physical bodies!” (36).  Whilst this is acknowledged, there is also mixed attitudes surrounding identity and the body: “everyone who has been joined even once with The Seep knows that we’re all the same. We’re all of the same essences, all layers of identity are just that, layers, and you can play with them just as we play with our appearances…” (35). This attitude upsets Trina sometimes. As a Trans woman before the Seep, Trina had faced difficulties in her life trying to obtain the body she felt was truly hers, and now that people can change whatever they want with the Seep, she is not tempted to change again: “But Trina had labored for this body! She’d fought and kicked and clawed to have her insides match her outsides, and now people changed their faces as easily as getting a haircut” (145).

The novel explores and confronts these contemporary struggles and concepts of identity in a way that dramatically fuels the rest of the narrative, making the novel ‘Powerful, beautiful, moving and uncompromising’ (The Fantasy Hive). This novel is a haunting but mesmerizing take on the alien invasion and Utopian, or Ustopian, or Dystopian visions of Future Earth. Posthumanism drips off the page at every opportunity, but more than that the concept of the human is questioned, unpicked, pulled apart, then reconstructed again and again, because “With The Seep, anything is possible” (35).


Atwood, Margaret. “Road to Ustopia.” The Guardian, Accessed 11 March 2022.

Futurama. “The Beast of a Billion Backs”. Directed by Peter Avanzino, Rough Draft Studios, 2008.

Noon, Jeff. Vurt. Tor, 2014.

Thornton, Jonathan. “The Seep by Chana Porter.” The Fantasy Hive, Accessed 21 March 2022.

Lucy Nield is a PhD student and GTA in the Department of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. Her research interests include Dog-culture, animal studies, speculative fiction, posthumanism and anthropomorphism within Science Fiction. She is an organizer for the Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference at the University of Liverpool (@CRSFteam), co-editor for the Ariadnes Thread Journal (@Ariadnesthrd) and regular contributor to The Fantasy Hive (@TheFantasyHive). Lucy has also been published for fiction and poetry by University of Liverpool Press and Pandoras Box, and has been published in Foundation Science Fiction Review (2021) and SFRA Review (2019).

Review of Machine

Review of Machine

Ian Campbell

Elizabeth Bear. Machine. Saga Press, 2020. Trade paperback, 482 pg. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-5344-0302-4.

Elizabeth Bear, a master of the craft of SF, released Machine as the second novel in her White Space series. It is a direct follow-up to 2019’s Ancestral Night, also an excellent read: the events of Ancestral Night form part of the backdrop to Machine. The novel is a complex and sympathetic depiction of a seriously disabled person who is enabled to function at the much higher level she desires through the intervention of an empathetic social democratic government and technology developed by and among a diverse society. It is also a sustained critique of the utopian impulse, both directly and in its presentation of the conflict between an imperfect society still more utopian than our own and those whose wish to purify it puts that society at serious risk.

White Space is a universe in which humans crashed Earth’s ecology and their own society before learning to work together, whereupon they were contacted by the mostly benevolent and very diverse galactic society of the Synarche; after a few centuries, humanity has integrated into shared governance with other “syster” species and the advanced AIs that run starships and facilities. Machine takes as its setting the enormous, multispecies, multienvironment teaching hospital Core General; it is told from the perspective of Brookllyn “Llyn” Jens, who grew up on a backwater human planet to serve first as an officer in the Synarche’s law enforcement apparatus, then as an ER physician at Core General.

Llyn’s current job as the point person for a medical rescue team affiliated with the hospital leads her to a derelict human sublight generation ark, drifting in space far from where it should be and filled with the corpsicles of humans who fled Earth as things were collapsing, and thus represent the very bad past for Llyn. This encounter leads to the infection of Core General’s AIs with a virus; Llyn’s investigations lead her to discover that Core General is a corrupt institution that in a proudly egalitarian society allows wealthy individuals a form of immortality that crosses a real line in the Synarche, all in order to fund its services, including Llyn’s rescue team. Sorting out what is happening and how those she holds dear have manipulated her first into discovering the corruption, then having to work to ameliorate it is deeply wrenching for Llyn. She is a true believer in the benevolence of Core General and the Synarche, who have taken her from someone defined by her disability on a nasty backwater planet to someone everyone else regards as an action hero.

The plot is significantly more complicated than this, but Machine is well worth not further spoiling. Let us rather consider the novel’s presentation of history, disability and utopia. Llyn is pleased, and proud, and very vocal, about how the modern humanity that was able to solve most of its problems benefitted still more from contact with and integration into the Synarche. She frames this as the human species reaching “adulthood”:

Adulthood begins when you look at the mess you’ve made and realize that the common element in all the terrible things that have gone wrong in your life is you. The choices you have made; the shortcuts you have taken; the times you have been lazy or selfish or not taken steps to mitigate damage; or have neglected to care for the community. As a species, the immature decisions we made contributed to the collapse of our own population and the radical alteration of our biosphere. Running away to space at sublight speeds was a desperate move. It made more sense and was more sustainable in the long run to fix the evolutionary issues in our own psyches that led us into irrational, hierarchal, and self-destructive choice? (131)

The metaphor here is to compare an individual’s development to a society’s; the estrangement is of course to cast our own society as children, the implicit defining feature of which is to be so psychically damaged as to take shortcuts, or to neglect to care for the community. Llyn grew up, and became an adult and a self-admittedly very bad parent, in a society she considers not fully adult; she underwent therapy/medication, which Machine refers to as “rightminding”, to rid herself of selfish tendencies. Like most human adults in the Synarche, Llyn also has a “fox” or computer implanted and networked into her brain: at moments of high anxiety, she or her ship AI use the fox to moderate her brain chemistry. It is clear from the text that “rightminding” can be coercive and is widely used as a means of disciplining those deemed too selfish or who damage the community; it is less clear whether direct manipulation of brain chemistry is similarly imposed. Llyn is a big fan of rightminding, and preaches its virtues just often enough to point to how we as readers ought to pay attention to just how much free will is involved in rightminding and being a part of the Synarche. Her own less-rightminded birth society was something she escaped as soon as she could; she is apprehensive because the corpsicles might exhibit all sorts of the behavior she calls “socipathological”, and intelligent enough to be amused by her own shock that the one thawed corpsicle she spends meaningful time with turns out to exhibit nothing but communitarian, “adult” values when things become dire.

A primary reason Llyn is so enthusiastic about the Synarche is that it enables her. Llyn suffers from chronic pain and a never clearly defined autoimmune condition whose inflammatory response often nearly immobilizes her. She implies late in the text that her condition is hereditary, introduced into the human genome as one of many mostly idiopathic autoimmune conditions that sprung up in the wake of environmental catastrophe on Earth. Rightminding and tuning her brain chemistry help ameliorate, but never eliminate, her chronic pain, but the main gift of the Synarche is her exoskeleton. This is not a metal frame like the one Ripley puts on in Aliens, but rather a much more subtle assembly of nanotubes and the like: Llyn is of course hyperaware of the exoskeleton, but the text implies that someone unfamiliar with Llyn and viewing her while clothed might not know that she’s wearing it. With the exoskeleton, she can leap out of spaceships into the void and rescue the injured; without it, as happens once in the text when she outranges its battery life, even something as simple as walking can be fraught. From the perspective of the plot, Llyn’s disability is relevant only insofar as she loves the Synarche for providing her the means to become an action hero; otherwise, she is simply a disabled person who sometimes has to make time to tend to herself. It’s a complex and nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of a disabled person who is neither defined by her disability nor has to overcome or transcend it as a sort of personal growth: we can only hope that other writers of SF will look to Bear’s example as a model for disabled characters.

Llyn’s enthusiasm for the Synarche, and her despair and then determination when she finds it to be more corrupt than she’d believed, serves as the perspective for Bear’s estrangement of utopias and the utopian impulse. The Synarche is Bear’s own invention, but it’s also pretty clearly a critical read of Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” novels and the conditions of existence for a galaxy-spanning utopia: the hinge point here are the lovingly silly names the AI ships give themselves. The Culture is whatever “pan-human” might be; the Synarche contains alien species ranging from supercold methane breathers to the inhabitants of superhot Venus-like environments. The Culture is uniformly high-development and primarily based on enormous starships and created mini-Ringworlds; the Synarche has backwater planets that are clearly not economic or social utopias, and the particular sort of FTL technology it uses prevents ships from growing too large. Banks handwaves a great number of things to get where he wants to be; Bear interrogates how something like Core General might come to exist. Whereas Banks directly states in Consider Phlebas that resources are effectively unlimited in the Culture, Bear has resource allocation become a direct problem in Machine; due to a previous crisis, funds to Core General were cut before Llyn’s time.

The limitation of resources leads the AIs and systers who run Core General to cut corners, accepting an unpleasant tradeoff in return for the funds needed for its operation. Inequality persists in White Space: the very wealthy are treated to special privileges in a private wing of the hospital. Because this breach of ethics is intolerable to some, they engage in a grand conspiracy to expose it, manipulating Llyn to do some of their dirty work. To give more detail would again be to spoil a work I encourage you to read, but the crux of the story is whether Llyn will side with those who accept some corruption and those who want purity at any cost. The Culture novels handwave how they get to utopia because they are concerned with how utopia imposes itself upon others and what happens to people who are unhappy even within utopia. Bear, by contrast, is encouraging us to consider how the utopian impulse is itself as destructive as it can be constructive: the corruption at Core General doesn’t affect its ability to deliver services, and in fact even helps it to do so, while those who would expose that corruption in the name of true equality would impede its function. It’s a fast-paced, entertaining, fun and plausible read that has far more than it seems going on beneath its surface—and it’s got three different giant talking bugs.

Ian Campbell is the editor of SFRA Review.

Review of Flyaway

Review of Flyaway

Jeremy Brett

Kathleen Jennings. Flyaway., 2020. Hardcover. 175 pg. $19.99. ISBN 978-1-250-260049-9.

Author and illustrator Kathleen Jennings has accomplished something wonderful – at least to my American eyes – with her graceful, evocative novella Flyaway. In bringing a fairytale sensibility and ethos to her native Australia (the story is set in the Outback of western Queensland, or, as Jennings poetically opens, “somewhere between the Coral Sea and the Indian Ocean but on the way to nowhere, there was a district called – oh, let’s call it Inglewell.”), she demonstrates the generality of that sensibility (11). The lessons of fairytales, their tropes, their internal constructions, their stories of mysterious and profound transformation – these are the common property of humanity and know no geographical boundaries. We’ve seen, of course, fairytales before that take place both from and in settings far and away from the traditional woods of Mitteleuropa, but Flyaway beautifully reinforces the universality of the fairytale. Leaving aside the beauty of the writing, the novella would be a powerful resource for scholars looking to explore not only Australian fantasy but the commonalities of the fairytale genre as a whole.  

At once Jennings establishes a powerful, immediate sense of fantastical place and mood, with her indeterminate and airy description. Her opening chapter “All That Was” describes Inglewell, and its central town of Runagate, in terms of their distance, their ephemerality in the face of harsh reality, and their underlying endurance that betrays the existence of a more lasting order of things.

It was a fragile beauty: too east to bleach with dust and history, to dehydrate with heat,     rend with the retort of a shotgun or the strike of a bullbar, blind with sun on metal. Easy to turn from it, disgusted and afraid. But if you got out of a car to stretch your legs and instead were still, if you crouched down and waited, it would find you, nosing among the grass like the breeze. The light and loveliness would get into your bones, into your veins. It would beat in your blood like drumming in the ground.

Memory seeped and frayed there, where ghosts stood silent by fenceposts. (12-13)

And the story is deeply rooted in the slipperiness of memory. The novella’s protagonist is young Bettina Scott, troubled by her inability to recollect key elements of her past, including the whereabouts of her missing father and brothers. Her fellow Runagate denizens (who are rife with suspicions and hatreds about one another’s families) seem to know more about Tina’s life and past than she does. There is a Gothic horror-style unease in Tina’s memory gaps, especially when combined with her mother’s unnerving need for reassurances about every aspect of their lives. Something is clearly askew, not right, not the way things are supposed to be. And so, Tina embarks on a quest of sorts, complete with companions, visits to mysterious places, and interwoven stories. As she notes, “It could be my dad, I thought, rustily – I’d so carefully not thought that. If all those stories mean anything, they mean sometimes people do just disappear. And maybe they can be found” (121).’

Along with the unreliability of memory comes the exploration of loss. Things and people go missing all the time in Flyaway, despite attempts to bind them. A repeating theme is Tina’s friend/enemy Gary Damson, who is also seeking to solve the mysteries of various disappearances and whose family builds fences in the district. The Damsons are concerned with maintaining order and balance in the face of wildness: his family is one of the ones who “know what’s going one…It’s what my gran says. We’re charged with keeping things on an even keel” (161). In the most dramatic instance, an entire school in the town of Woodwild vanishes forever beneath creeping lantern-bush, taking with it most of the town’s children in an Australian Outback turn on the Pied Piper tale. Order and civilization (and memories) fall beneath the power of mystery and disorder and loss.

The world forgot we’d ever had a school. In Woodwild, it felt as if the vines had grown inside our skulls. We’d never get past them. No kiss could fix that…The police investigated. They went into steep country and gullies. They found dying stands of lantern-bush, sheep bones, cattle bones, rusting carcasses of cars. They went right into the caves. I heard a rumor they found a cavern nearly beneath the school, the stone white in light filtering down through knotted roots. Nothing else (113).

In the end, however, the encroaching power of loss is belied by liberation. As in the old stories, the quest is completed, the riddle solved, the lost found. (Not to give away the ending but suffice it to say that the novella’s title becomes quite literal by the book’s conclusion.) This is all too appropriate, given Flyaway’s deep immersion in the power and impact that stories can have. Stories can be embodied and given life – literally here, this being a fairytale. “The schoolchildren of Woodwild, David Spicer, Linda Aberdeen, all who went before and alongside and after them: they are trapped by the stories that made them and dragged them in; they are caught and held by town and road and lantern-bush and trees.” (158) Jennings artfully weaves the power of story into the whole of the novella: people tell stories, people become stories, people’s absences form their own stories in turn, and so on. Stories reflect the mysteries and randomness we encounter in our lives, and in Jennings’ tale, they often cause them as well. The true heart of Flyaway comes about halfway through the book, when that view is explicitly noted. It gives additional weight to Flyaway’s value as a profound work of modern folklore that carries on the hallowed fairytale tradition of exploring the human experience through the fantastical lens of story.

“There aren’t any stories except the ones we bring with us,” Trish Aberdeen used to say, stamping into the long grass after school, as if she wanted it to be true (as if she didn’t keep thinking she’d seen wolves and tigers stalking her in the scrub). Gary Damson, who knew better, who suspected Trish knew better too, would hold his tongue.

Because even if she were right, something had to happen to all the stories no one wanted. Histories and memories that had been taken into the trees, beyond the fences and roads – those seams of the world from which reason and civilization leak – and abandoned.

They must have outnumbered all the living populations of Inglewell. Stories that had belonged to the people who lived there before the Spicers established Runagate Station…. Battles, massacres, murder; bushrangers and lonely revenge; tales of whose last stand was on this knob of land, of what will catch the toes of children swimming unattended, of witches in the scrub waiting for the unwary, of loping beats and whispering megarrities. Then there were the stories of those who had simply…gone. (48-49)

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.