Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles

As its Black history month, I wanted to write only reviews of black speculative fiction. This partially because in the last two or three years, science fiction and fantasy’s crisis of race has become more apparent. Although I only joined the science fiction community in relatively recent years, I know that discussions of race have been part of SFF’s slowly growing presence on the internet. SFF’s issues specifically with blackness have not always been so openly discussed. When Fireside Fiction published its Black Spec Fic report in early 2017, I was horrified to find out that only 2.9% of the published science fiction community that published stories in 2016 were black . That’s not just a bad number — its a terrible number.

I’m a white cis lesbian. As Clayton says: no amount of “wokeness” will allow me to decode the nuances of this novel. It is, moreover, not my place to take up space to talk about this novel when there are black reviewers out there far more deserving.

So, instead of posting a review, I’m going to do a quick note on this book.

I wish I had seen more discussion of how this book handled queerness before I read it. This book engages with the Bury Your Gays trope. I started reading this book totally unaware of how this book was going to use this trope, and I wish I had been warned.

The Belles is a book about suffering, pain and cruelty disguised as a book rich with fashion, food and colors. The lavish descriptions, emphasis on physical appearances and adoration of aesthetics were fascinating. The world-building was immaculate. And, while Clayton clearly tried to set up a fictional world in which queerness was normalized, she didn’t quite manage to execute her vision. Two sapphic characters are either publicly ridiculed for their queerness — Camille finds old newspaper articles which mock the Queen for her preference of her female lover over the king, and imply her inability to have a child is a moral failing — or murdered. The third sapphic character is the villain.

As a caveat, this is also a world where slavery is normalized. Perhaps the surface level of “queerness is okay,” only to be dismissed and ridiculed in a more complex system, was part of Clayton’s worldbuilding. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. I just invite queer readers to approach this with caution.

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Octavia Butler’s Fledgling: #NotAllVampires

Fledgling, published in 2005, was Octavia Butler’s last book before her death in 2006. It was published about two years before Twilight, so it definitely predated the American vampire fever of the mid-aughts, though as any self-respecting Anne Rice fan can tell you, vampires and their place in urban fantasy didn’t need Twilight to make them popular. Fledgling seemed to be an exploration of an idea for me; the book examines what it would mean for a black vampire to exists, and delves into that topic with Butler’s signature attention to detail and social criticism.

The book begins in a cave; the first person protagonist wakes up with no knowledge of who she is and how she got there. Even this trope, Butler uses with integretiy: the book focuses on the trauma and pain of the protagonists’s slow recovery. As she slowly regains conscience, she begins to leave her cave and discover things about herself. She is naked. She is badly burned. She is hungry.
Although she doesn’t know herself, our protagonist is called Shuri, and she is an Ina. Ina’s are what vampire lore evolved from — they drink blood (and occasional eat flesh) to survive, they age a lot slower than humans, and they can’t stand sunlight. Shuri is, however, an unusual Ina: she is black (“brown,” she corrects in her own head early on in the book, as with her reawakening she has to relearn about the construct of race). Her family’s home was burned to the ground, and everyone inside, except for Shuri, died. Shuri doesn’t know why. She wants to solve the mystery.
So, at a loss, Shuri begins walking along the side of the road. A man pulls over to help her, and she gets into his car and bites him. It turns out that an Ina’s bite contains a venom that makes the act of feeding off a human pleasureable for them. The man, Wright, becomes her protector, and then later her lover, as they explore what it means to be an Ina.
Shuri begins to find out more about herself and her families. It turns out, is a feat of Ina genetic engineering — her grandmothers combined Ina DNA with that of a black human woman in order to create Shuri. After Shuri’s father is also murdered (with the same MO as her mother’s murder), Shuri has to find other Ina and find out who has been targeting her in order to save her.

Butler’s Ina were actually a pretty refreshing take on vampires– I get really easily bored when people look at vampires as demonic, since that means you immediately have to allow all other popular culture deamons to be true as well, which then asks questions about your world-building and can get really frustrating really fast. Butler stuck with only vampires by changing the vampire mythos slightly. Inas aren’t afraid of crosses or garlic, and they can’t turn humans into vampires, and they didn’t start out as humans. They are, instead, simply a different race from humans, with language and text dating back 14,000 years. Their origin is unimportant, though the book does offer a titillating note that they might be aliens who landed on the earth. Instead, the book focuses on the complexities of any given group — even ancient and wise beings have prejudices and issues, and Shuri’s singular status as a black vampire leads to a lot of upheaval in the Ina community.

The book focuses on Shuri’s journey in learning about herself, and what it means to be an Ina. In order to survive, an Ina has a group of symbots — usually 7 or 8 humans — which she feeds off regularly. Most Ina have symbots of all genders, and symbots and their Ina live in a community. A symbot’s relationship with their Ina can be sexual, but doesn’t have to be, and many symbots marry and have children with each other, leaving for a very polya and queer familial makeup. The second I read about them, I became overjoyed, since it sort of sounded like the ideal queer household to me? An Ina and their symbot are bound to each other — a symbot is essentially addicted to a single Ina’s venom, and in the same way an Ina develops a deep affection for their symbots. Their harmony and affection is important, and several times through the book there was a stress on how much physical affection Inas needed.

Although I thought that the book was queer in its very ideas — the concept of family as defined in this book, for example, but also the way many characters related with each other, I was somehow a little bit frustrated by the actual named queer characters. Not a single queer symbot was mentioned, and queer Inas were not even discussed. In a society that’s 14,000 years old, shouldn’t there have been at least some explicit mention of queerness?

Perhaps this was a deliberate move on Butler’s part, though — the Ina’s were ultimately seen to be pretty conservative. Despite the fact that Shuri’s genetically engineered status conferred some innate advantages on her (namely that she could walk in sunlight and only get burned), some Ina don’t consider her human anymore. Butler’s exploration of the ancient and omnipresent specter of racism was both hopeful, since Shuri is supported and more than able to fight against her attackers, and also hopeless — even creatures 500+ years old are victims of racism’s ugly curse. Thank god the novel’s eventual case was get woke, or die.

Hungry for More: Hunger, by Roxane Gay

HUNGER, by Roxane Gay, is a book that fascinated me. It’s a memoir of Gay’s life, up until the present day, in which she describes the trauma that at age 12 shaped her. As she looks through her life, she notes all the different places in which her trauma manifested, and we are invited to see how a single day in the life of a girl can ripple through everything. Gay explains that she obsessively and compulsively eats, in part, to shield her body from the world. Her own disgust with her fat body, combined with societal disregard and distaste, imbue the novel. It’s not an easy read.

Any person who knows Gay’s work wouldn’t be surprised by either of these two revelations: they are both discussed in Bad Feminist too. And I think that was a striking part of this book, for me; it felt commissioned. I can’t say that someone pitched at Gay for her to write this book, but I do know that as someone who blogs and tweets a lot about the pains of being fat in America, it would make sense for a publishing house to commission this book from Gay. I noticed this also in the lack of editing in this book. Hunger could have been at least 100 pages shorter without losing any of its weight, importance or emotional honesty.

It also wasn’t a satisfying book. I think memoirs are hard, and as a genre they are not something I have grappled with, but this book left me with the simple question of “why?” Why had Gay decided to write this book? She described painful and complicated emotional journeys, and then interrupted them with small short episodes about her life. These didn’t hang together well, though, and often lacked introspection. I felt like I was reading, over and over again, the idea that “being an adult is hard,” or that “being healthy is hard,” to which I agree! But also…that was it. There were no pieces of wisdom, and no larger moral lessons– it was just a book about how life is hard. To which my answer is, of course, I feel you, but also: why did you write a book about it? Why did I read a book about it?

In Hunger, Gay talks a lot about how existing in a fat body is hard because society rejects it. The pinnacle of beauty is thinness, and fatness is read as a moral failing. People feel implicated in fatness, she explains. This is valid. In order to exist as a happy fat person, then, one could posit, one needs to accept ones own body. Gay never moved away from hatred for herseld though, which I think surprised me, because I thought that as a queer person, she would have practice in accepting both her non-normative existance, and existing with other people’s disdain for it. Gay never seemed to have a moment in this book in which she discussed trying to accept herself.

And part of that, I think, is that Gay talks a lot about how her body is too unruly for a lot of spaces in public life. Seats are too small for her, and walking even a little bit makes her sweaty and breathless, and stepping up a space can’t be accessible to her. All of these visible boundaries punishing unruly bodies must be a constant grating reminder of her own non-normative existence. But I think I just expected there to come a moment of self-love — so many queer fat people celebrate their bodies, and I was just repeatedly struck how that never happened. Gay cautions in her intro that this book isn’t a bout a triumph of weightloss, and so I think I expected this book to be about the triumph of accepting her own body, but it wasn’t that either.

One of the parts of Gay’s book that I thought was particularly interesting was her take on Oprah. Oprah famously lost a lot of weight, and then brought large bags of lard onto the stage of her show, doing almost public penance for her fatness. Gay discussed this episode, but then continued to point out that Oprah recently bought a controlling share of Weight Watchers. In her ads she explains to viewers that now she can live her best life by eating whatever she wants! (The famous “I love bread” gif comes from these ad). This, Gay thought was sad: how could a woman, worth so much money, still care so much about the diet industry and what other people thought about her? I just quickly wanted to give Gay a quick counterpoint — the diet industry makes a lot of money. It has been a source of riches since the 14th century. Western civilization loves diet culture, and Gastropod does an amazing episode about it that we highly recommend. But once you listen to that episode, you realise something amazing: diet culture is worth a lot of money. What if, instead of bowing to societal demands, Oprah was simply monetizing societal demands? I felt that it was a pretty reductive argument on Gay’s part to consider Oprah as a victim of the industry, when I think it is just as easy to read her as a winner.

In essence, I felt that this book posited “being a healthy adult is hard,” and left that there, as if it was somehow a revolutionary or different statement. Entire chapters are devoted to this premise; she talks about how hard it is to work out, how hard it is to eat healthily, and how hard it is to cook. Yes! These are all true! Most young adults, especially those who suffer from mental illness and trauma, would agree! And here I grew frustrated: Gay would just end her chapters. She would often finish anecdotes of how exercising was hard with a verbal “so there,” as if that proved her point. It was hard, she couldn’t do it, that was that. Sometimes the chapters were: it was hard, she didn’t it for a short time, so there. But ultimately, there was this large, loud “full stop”.

Despite the fact that it often felt like, although Gay was the one writing this book, she was also the one who constantly wanted to close the conversation around her own weight and behaviors, she did end it on a positive note. The final part of the book describes an incident when Gay fractured her ankle. I have been a fan of Gay’s since 2014 (when she started the Toast vertical The Butter), and as a result I remember her talking about her ankle fracture in real time. I thought it was fascinating that she talked about this moment when her body betrayed her in a small and arbitrary way, and how she needed that to reminded her that she and her body had a responsibility not only towards herself, but to the people that loved her. I loved the images she evoked, and I thought it was the perfect note to end the book on. It wasn’t an uplifting story about success, but it also wasn’t a moment of sadness — it was a moment in which Gay realized the abstract love that she had perceived as single pieces were suddenly all counted up as one.

I think, ultimately, I was frustrated with Gay’s book because I expected so much more of her. I am a big fan of her writing, saw her speak once and was enamored, and generally love her analysis. I just don’t think Gay’s short and decisive moments of clarity lend themselves to a memoir. Throughout the book, she had good points — I liked how she separated the ideas of “poor” and “broke,” for example. She explains that even at her worst she was just “broke,” because her parents have money, and if she had needed it, she always has a place to which to come back. Her discussion of extreme and performative diet culture (“The Big Loser” was her example) was also good. Ultimately, though, I just wanted someone to challenge Gay. Or perhaps for Gay just to get some therapy? Who knows.

All in all, I simply found this book oddly juvenile, and very incomplete.

An Unusual Love Story: River Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts

To say that Rivers Solomon’s debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts is a love story would be too simplistic. And yet — it would also touch upon an inherent truth in the novel. The book is a classic science fiction multi-generational ship story. Instead of focusing on whether such a life is viable on a ship (as debated in Aurora), Solomon focuses a lot of more on what kind of a society would survive in the bowels of this ship. The image she paints is not a positive one; the economic system aboard the HSS Matilda looks a lot like slavery. The lower decks are filled with dark skinned people, refereed to as “Tarheads” early on in the novel, who work on rotating plantation fields under the ships nuclear engineered sun, Baby. The middle decks have some brown people, but mostly white people down on their luck, and their upper decks are filled with white people. Their regent is called the Sovereign, and he rules with that classic Divine Right of Kinds, and the guards and upper deckers happily use brutality and violence on the lower deckers to keep them in line. While in the lower decks, there is not enough heat so that kids lose their limbs to frostbite, in the upper deck, there is an ice rink.

The story of the book is simple. Aster, a young queer black woman from the lower decks, is the assistant to Theo, the Surgeon General of the ship. Theo is a black person who passes, so he lives on the upper deck. His father used to be the Sovreign, and at the beginning of the novel, his uncle is setting himself up to be the next . The book starts with the current Sovereign, Nicolas, getting deathly ill. As Theo tries to figure out how to save him, Aster learns that the illness that plagues him is eerily similar to the illness her mother had, 25 years ago. Aster tries to make sense of the past, find her mother, and continue to survive on a ship that seems to teetering on the brink of something.

Not really the setting for a love story, right?

But that’s the thing. Somehow, Solomon can take a violent and destitute situation, and make it something more. During no part of their book do their posit that “really, rascism is okay!” — actually the opposite is true — throughout the novel, Aster constantly reminds the reader and her audience that she can and would happily kill all the Upper Deckers on the ship. Her comfort and knowledge about violence is honest in such a refreshing way. Aster has not been brainwashed, and she is happy to fight against the regime in all her small ways. And yet, Solomon laces this violent and traumatic landscapes with so many amazing moments of humane love, potential and kindness that I was genuinely moved to tears in several sections.

The book opens on a scene in which Aster has to amputate the foot of a child because of the cold. As she is preparing for the surgery, she and Flick, the child, discuss their families. Flick has not only his mother with him — but also his grandmother and great-grandmother, and he proudly assigns himself into their care. As Flick names their parental figures Aster is jealous; she is an orphan who never had that lineage. As Aster walks away from that interaction, wearing a new warm coat, she comforts herself that she does have her mother’s old notebooks. The love between generations is an on-going theme though, and Aster and her relationship with her dead mother, as parsed through decoded notebooks, isn’t the only example of it. Aint Melusine and her love for both Theo and Aster, each in their own way, is an important element of the story.

The second type of love that this book explores is the love of sisters. Aster and a her bunk mate, another motherless woman that a caretaker type woman adopted, Giselle, are very much cast in a sibling relationship. Together Aster and Giselle are a fierce duo. They both struggle, and the book doesn’t hide that fact that Giselle is both traumatized and mentally ill, and as a result she can be cruel and fickle. Aster takes it, and sometimes returns it in kind, and sometimes acknowledges that the pain comes from a place of hurt, and lets it go. Aster even sometimes makes sure to call Giselle her sister, and to bind her to herself in that unbreakable way, partially because, she explains, sisters can never stop being sisters. The nuances of Giselle and Aster’s friendship, or sistership, are fascinating, partially because Solomon doesn’t shy away from the real material pain people can cause each other. The two of them have been beaten and scared and hurt in so many way that sometimes they can’t help it, and hurt each other, only for them to both realize, and apologize.

The third love is the romantic love between two broken people. This element of the story especially spoke to me; I felt like by allowing both Aster and Theo to be traumatized and scarred by their own queerness, but not broken by it, Solomon perfectly toed the line of queer suffering. Theo described himself as “not a man,” and had other small narrative indicators that he might actually be trans, and I thought that that was a fascinating way to handle unnamed queerness. While in the novel he took male pronouns, and never asked for any others, there was a strong current of his own unhappiness in his body, and while Aster mirrored and understood this, they could love each other. Their romance also neither over-sexualize them, nor did it present them as sex-less, two things I was initially a little bit worried about. Instead, their romance was skillfully handled in a brash and revolutionary way. and I reveled in it.

Lastly, there is the love story of author and story. As I listened to this book, the only thought I kept on coming back to was that Rivers Solomon was the only person who could tell this story. And I say that with complete honesty: they may be a debut author, but the skill and precision with which they handled complex scenes and difficult issues just floored me. And I think because Solomon chose to tell a story through the lens of a queer intersex disabled and (possibly?) autistic young black woman, the story worked. Amar El-Mohtar, who reviewed this book for NPR, said it so well:

To name a thing Solomon does in this book is to praise it. I loved the way each deck had its own dialect, how lowdeckers explored those differences with each other and learned each other’s languages. I loved the attention to gender variance, to queerness, and the rooting of rigidity around gender in the ruling class’ obsession with policing black bodies. I loved the exploration, in several heartbreaking scenes, of how enslavement breeds cruelty along an intersecting circuitry of lines among lowdeckers, as everyone tries their best to survive. I loved the clarity and precision of the prose, which felt like drinking cool water on an empty stomach, like being limned in light on the inside. Most of all, though, I loved Aster’s voice, Aster’s perspective on the world, Aster’s anger and her fierce, unrelenting kindness to those she loves, no matter how they hurt her.

I just want to take every person by the hand, gently sit them down, and have them read this book. It’s amazing, nuanced, fascinating, wonderful, and a perfect example of what amazing stories can be told when we allow diverse writing to exist in the science fiction community.

[Quick shout out to Solomon’s patreon down here — I support them, and so should you, because we all want them to have the brain space to write more amazing fiction]

The Politics of a Retelling: Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

When I read a book that I don’t like, I will often seek out the bad reviews on Goodreads. What did other people who only rated this with two or three stars think about it? Why did they think that? And so, when I was reaching the 90% mark on Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and I was still frustrated and bored, I thought to check out the other two star ratings.

Big mistake.

Continue reading “The Politics of a Retelling: Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns”

The (Disappointing) Story of Lizzy and Darcy

Books that start bad and end bad really don’t hurt anyone. They are simply there, and sometimes I DNF them, and sometimes I do finish them with high hopes, only to be disappoint. Books that start bad and end well are a more complicated creature, but since the ending is what sits with me, it can be pleasant. Books that start well, promising me great things, and then lose their thread and peeter out at the end, however, are the worst. Those books entice me, and promise me things. But then, in the end, when it comes to the middle and the end part of books, the two hardest parts, they disappoint.

That’s what happened to me with Grace Watson’s debut novel The Story of Lizzie and Darcy. The book started so well. So well that I even texted my MOTHER about it. Continue reading “The (Disappointing) Story of Lizzy and Darcy”

The Problem of the Squandered Female Character: The Tethered Mage

The Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso, was not a book on my radar until Liz Burke tweeted about it some time in September. I made a note of it, and moved on. Then, Liz Burke reviewed it; she described it as a “Venetianesque fantasy”, and immediately my ears perked up. As an English Major who grew up predominantly in Oxford, England, cultures steeped in old tradition always fascinate me. Talk to me about your culture’s colonialism, their sea-faring power, and “cosmopolitan cities built on trade and conquest, ruled by an oligarchy with some democratic elements” (emphasis my own, quote from Liz Burke). And then, I found out that the book revolves around Lady Amalia Cornaro, the heir to one of the oligarchies, and Zaira, a powerful fire mage who gets trapped by complicated magic, and eternally tethered to Amalia. It looked like my exact cup of tea; women who learn to support and uphold each other, despite class and personality differences, and ultimately become a fighting duo.

This book disappointed me. Continue reading “The Problem of the Squandered Female Character: The Tethered Mage”

link round up 14

It’s been a slow news week, but here are the interesting things happening anyway.

ONE; Supergirl is offically moving to the CW, which is good news if you like crossovers and not bad news at all, since Calista Flockhart signed on to move to the CW as well (thank god). Tumblr user delaexmachina wrote an amazing post about how this move is actually very interesting from a television studies perspective, since we now live in “the new age of television where live view ratings are no longer king.”

TWO; White Men Don’t Own Geek Culture is a really important article quickly giving white cis men a crash course in phrases like “appropriation” and how women, especially women of colour, could in no way appropriate “nerd culture.”  argues this really well, with a quick, cutting style, and I loved it.

How could I be “appropriating” when I was just trying to exist in the culture I loved? I don’t have the power to steal nerd culture from cis white men, but they have the power to chase me away—and they also have the power to shape and maintain nerdy movies, books, and TV so that people like me are marginalized or invisible.

THREE; this article, about “Halal in the Family,” a series of comedic Web shorts that came out last year, is fascinating. Not only because it celebrates genius comedy, but it also discusses how to create a show for minorities by minorities. Even minorities need to consult each other, look at their own prejudices etc. to create a show that’s amusing for everyone.

Mandvi co-created the “Halal in the Family” Web series with Miles Kahn, who was the co-creator of the sketch on “The Daily Show.” “In order to get an idea of what we wanted to talk about, we reached out to Muslim advocates and various Muslim organizations and legal organizations that are dealing with this kind stuff in courts: infiltration of mosques, illegal surveillance, cyberbullying,” Mandvi told me. “And we used those as issues to wrap this sitcom format around.” They made the shorts on a shoestring budget, intending to make more in the future. “We launched it on Funny or Die, and it became incredibly popular,” Mandvi said. “It was crazy. Everybody was suddenly talking about it. It made me realize, Oh, there’s a real appetite for this kind of content.”

FOUR; i love it when serious websites need to write “historical” articles about how women really were gamers in the old days! Crazy! Women did things! They were written out of history! Weird! I wonder how that happened? Well, we’ll never know…

Nothing else has happened on my radar, except that I made a fic rec list for Supergirl but that was it. Do you guys have anything to add?