It Takes Two: Socially Critical SFF

Today on It Takes Two we’re going to talk about two recent novels which are, from the outside, very different–one is a second world fantasy with characters who are able to manipulate the mineral makeup of the earth upon which they live, while the other is a near-future science fiction story about clones going forth in a generation ship to investigate a strange, recently-discovered star–but which keep coming back to similar commentaries about the current state of our world, and in particular the United States.

I’m talking, of course, about N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, first in her Broken Earth trilogy, and Marina J. Lostetter’s Noumenon.  Now, I understand that Noumenon is a relatively new release, so spoilers beware and all that.  But that’s pretty much par for the course for this blog series, anyway.

The Fifth Season deals with a society in which certain people, called orogenes, can manipulate the earth–quell earthquakes, move rocks, detect sound and vibrations–and who have been classes as subhuman and made into slaves to the rest of the empire because of it.  Another group, known as the Guardians, have been technologically modified to detect and control orogenes, and they move through the empire seeking out orogenes as children to be trained or hunting down adults who have somehow escaped notice in the past.  The rest of the world goes about life, benefiting from the labor of enslaved orogenes, not even thinking about the mental gymnastics required to justify keeping other humans penned like particularly useful cattle, and generally not wanting to know about the real conditions orogenes must live under.

In Noumenon, on the other hand, a hand-picked crew has left earth aboard a nine-ship convoy, all clones of their originals who had particular aptitude and skill in one area deemed necessary for the success of the mission.  However, halfway to the star–nearly 100 years after setting out in sub-dimensional travel–a small contingent, convinced that using clones who have no choice but to be aboard, and whose lives are artificially constricted by the material needs of the convoy, attempt to stage a mutiny and turn the convoy around.  In the aftermath of the event all the clone lines who participated in the mutiny are discontinued–never brought to adulthood again, until catastrophe strikes and the convoy must stop its homeward journey to mine an asteroid and build a new ship.  Then the discontinued lines are brought back, but this time to be miners–effectively slaves, and held segregated from the rest of the convoy.  Even after the mining is over and the convoy resumes its journey, the discontinued lines are forced to wear different clothing and work in menial jobs like janitorial, never allowed close to power or high-skilled work again.

Both these novels, then, deal with the concept of hereditary slavery based upon particular, recognizable traits used to dehumanize their victims.  While each goes about it somewhat differently, they are each a finger pointed at the chattel slavery system upon which the United States was built, using nothing but skin color to justify enslaving, disenfranchising, and murdering millions of people.  While in the Broken Earth world it’s clearly stated that being an orogene is not an inherited trait, the children of orogenes usually end up enslaved whether or not they share their parents’ ability; known orogenes who have been trained by the Fulcrum–the center of power and effective school for orogenes–are forced to wear a distinctive black uniform that is recognized anywhere in the empire.  The mere fact that people who share this distinctive ability are the only slaves in the empire is enough of a reference to the African slave trade in the Unisted Stetes.

Among the convoy in Noumenon, genetics are everything.  People grow up knowing what line they are part of, what they were grown for, and how they fit into the greater whole.  They also wear colored jumpsuits to denote their specialization, so when the discontinueds are brought back and forced to wear all-white jumpsuit, their second-class status is further enforced, because anyone else can tell at a glance that they are from lines heretofore considered subhuman and a liability to the convoy.  The parts of the novel that deal with asteroid mining are particularly gruesome as well, as all the mine worker lines are given only serial numbers and are overseen by enforcers who whip and threaten them, and even have the power to kill them on a whim.

While neither of these novels is explicitly about slavery and attempting to draw sff parallels, both accomplish incisive critiques of a modern United States that still has yet to reckon with its history of hereditary chattel slavery and the ways in which Africans were dehumanized in order to justify enslaving them.  They are each well-crafted stories in their own right, with fully realized world building and compelling characters.  Come for the awesome SFF, stay for the social critique.


Starfang: Rise of the Clan, by Joyce Chng

As space opera goes, Starfang: Rise of the Clan felt like a prologue to something much bigger.  It had all the elements of a compelling space adventure: a mystery, aliens, warring families, future technology, just waiting to be fleshed out into a winding tale of intrigue and interesting characters.  It still might turn out that way, with future installments of the series that Chng has yet to write, but it was wrapped up too quickly to really sink one’s teeth into.

Francesca Ming Yue is captain of the Starfang, one of the warships her clan uses to enforce its supremacy in their area of space and to carry out its various wars against other clans.  Francesca is a werewolf, one of homo sapiens lupus, a species whose origins is shrouded in mystery, and yet not shy about taking what it wants in a universe that has left Earth behind, and yet not forgotten it.  Starfang: Rise of the Clan is also a refreshing twist on the typical werewolf plot one sees in the Anglo publishing world, in that not only is it a tale of werewolves in space, but the origins of these clans are Asian, their customs and foods drawing from Chinese and Southeast Asian culture.

Francesca’s characterization, as the narrator and center of the story, hints at a complex backstory and complicated motivations behind her dutiful assumption of duty when ordered to a sector of space known for black market drugs and shady dealings, but the reader sees so little of her and what people think about her, aside from what she tells, that it’s difficult to get a read on what really makes her tick.  As tantalizing as her story might be for readers of the urban fantasy genre who may come in more invested than the average fantasy reader, without a deeper look into her character, it’s difficult to suspend disbelief and buy into the plot.

So, in the end, Starfang: Rise of the Clan is packed with fascinating tidbits and hints at more to come, but a little flat in its current iteration.

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

Arafura Ness has a problem. With an overprotective father on one side, an over-adventurous sister on another, and a single-minded robot babysitter on the other, Arafura Ness is being pulled in more directions than she can handle. What’s a girl to do? Obviously, the answer is run away to space. It’s dangerous, true, but what’s out there in the black is the least of Arafura’s worries. If she can survive her new crew without being thrown out into the Empty, that’ll be enough for her.

It’s never that easy, though, especially in a world where the only thing left to the lonely spindle worlds and wheelworlds and shellworlds of the Congregation, huddling at one end of the galaxy closest to the dying sun of old Earth, is digging up the past and selling it off one bauble at a time, trying to remember all the glories of old civilizations. Just when Arafura and her sister Adrana start to feel like they’re part of something, like they’re going somewhere with their lives, it all goes wrong, and Arafura will have to go deeper than anyone’s dared to try to make it right.

Revenger is an adventure tale, start to finish, and a distinct departure from his past galaxy-spanning science fiction odysseys. Arafura’s is a character-based plot, driven by personality and pain, with the kind of energy that only sisterly outrage can bring. Those used to Reynolds’ detached narration may be surprised by the steep drop he takes into the Wild West world of the Congregation, the frontier-town feeling of space-farers and planet-dwellers alike. The world building he’s put into this novel is both satisfying and entertaining.

Lovers of space opera and adventure science fiction will be drawn to the fast-paced tale of two sisters who just want to get away and see the world beyond their little planet. Fans of Star Wars and other galaxy-spanning tales will enjoy both the plot and descriptions of space ships, planets, and aliens. Revenger is a novel you’ll want to read all at once, spurred on by one of the oldest stories in the world: revenge and redemption.


Planetfall, by Emma Newman

On a facsimile of Earth, millions of miles from home, a small group of colonists have established a manufactured happiness, living with as little footprint as they can, surviving on the advancements of neuro-computers, 3-D printers, and a hyper-developed sense of social media etiquette.  While the Earth burns slowly behind them in waves of climate change and social unrest, Renata Ghali and her co-colonists wake up every morning at the gates of God’s City, and know they are the chosen.

Until, of course, something changes to break up their utopic existence, forcing Renata and her co-conspirator Mac to go to greater and greater lengths to maintain the fragile peace of a highly connected, insular community brought together by the lure of a planet calling them across the void, shown to them by their Pathfinder, Renata’s former best friend and lover.  This is the real story of space travel, the human side of technology and discovery, the truth under the frilly bedspread sewn by space opera romances.

Newman has a deft hand and an even keener sense of plotting, scattering details and clues to the mystery that has been Renata’s life ever since landing on this new alien planet, and even before she ever left.  She writes with a confidence in her story and ability that wraps the reader up in the plot, giving glimpses into the twists to come but the human story of Renata and her neighbors remains at the heart of the mystery, compelling and heartbreaking at the same time.

Readers interested in near-future science fiction without the authorial compulsion to educate and explain will find themselves engulfed by Newman’s vision of humanity’s future.  Those who prefer a compelling mystery plot to the hero’s journey need look no further than the twists and turns Renata takes to maintain her spun-glass story of a perfectly happy space colony. Newman’s is a refreshing and adept voice in the science fiction world and well worth checking out.

The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor

future and the past collide in The Book
of Phoenix
, a prologue to Okorafor’s Who
Fears Death
, as an old man finds a cave full of old computers out in the
desert and stumbles upon a story from the distant past—and the future.  Our future, that is.  When that old man begins to listen to
the story of Phoenix, we come face to face with the present taken to its
logical extreme.  With aliens,
wings, and a bit of magical realism, the reader is taken on a turbulent ride
through the life of Phoenix Okore.

The Book of Phoenix, unlike many future
dystopia novels, lives purely in a fantasy realm of its own making, like a
world in which matter is not subject to the usual forces of gravity.  Okorafor writes a brand of fantasy that
builds on Western African and other folklores, using the validity of those
beliefs and magics to interrogate the commonly held assumptions most American
whites make every day about those they other in order to define their own
identities.  Okorafor’s use of
estrangement is an affective tool in building a narrative that relies on the
‘found footage’ trope to tell a story of the world’s apocalypse.  Her rare blend of escapism and bleak
futurism provide a compelling story that keeps the reader hooked.

novel uses first-person narration to tell how Phoenix was born in a corporate
research tower, a created human with strange powers that the people who made
her hope to use as a weapon, most likely against the colonized peoples they are
already oppressing.  The use of
first-person often relies on exposition, which may have the effect of pushing
readers out of the future world that Phoenix lives in, and stretching the
suspension of disbelief at the wonders achieved even by those least qualified
to be stewards for the world.  Having
Phoenix tell her own story, though, is important to the narrative, and helps to
portray Phoenix as both powerful and fallible, able to achieve impossible
things while also a victim of her own strong emotions and the ignorance of her
own history in which she has been raised.

interested in dystopia that remembers the rest of the world—not just North
America or Europe—will enjoy traveling with Phoenix as she seeks asylum and
acceptance across continents and oceans. 
Those who like their fantasy to stray more towards magical realism or
the supernatural will enjoy Okorafor’s use of myth and folklore to build a
world in which nearly anything is possible.  Readers looking for a novel that is part of a connected
world of stories should check out The
Book of Phoenix
and its sister novel Who
Fears Death,
with a further stop at Kabu
, Okorafor’s collection of short stories which was published between
the two.

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

question is simple: What would happen, what stories would come out of it, if an
alien presence landed in Lagos, Nigeria? 
The answer is anything but simple. 
Life, it turns out, doesn’t stop when something unbelievable
happens.  You may become the center
of an unbelievable story, but you are still part of something larger, and
everything becomes much more complicated before it ever dreams of being simple
again.  So Adaora, Agu, and Anthony
discover when they are contacted by a being who calls herself Ayodele, who can
change her shape, and wants to be the ambassador between her people and the
people of Nigeria.

Lagoon reads almost more like a series
of stories than as a novel, full as it is of short chapters and small moments
between secondary characters. 
Though the main story follows Adaora and her companions, readers see how
even when they become the heroes of this story they are still pulled in many
directions by forces and connections they have built up over their entire
lives.  In this way, Okorafor
imbues Lagos with both an agelessness and an immediacy that allow myths to live
and old gods to rule.  Who is
pulling the strings, the reader wonders.  The aliens? Adaora, somehow taking the reins of her life and
the lives of those around her? 
Some other presence that has been in Nigeria all along? 

began Lagoon in response to the film District 9, and in it one can see the
response also to a culture in love with superheroes who become larger than life
and, eventually, above the lives of those they are meant to protect,
approaching even godhood.  The
underlying questions of who is really controlling this story interrogate
superhero culture—interrogate many aspects of modern technological culture and
media including traditional militarized narratives of alien visitation—until,
again, all we are left with are people who might possess something special that
pushes them into this story, but who still have a connection to where they came
from and essentially never forget who they are amidst the chaos of the alien’s

writing in Lagoon is sparse and very
close to the characters she’s writing—getting in their heads in a way that,
again, hints to the reader that this is not a novel, as advertised, but someone
else’s story entirely—and motivation is key in this novel in a way that really
highlights how motivation is sublimated in stories like District 9 or Independence
in favor of valorizing the heroes of their respective stories.  Okorafor’s style in this novel also
really localizes the story in a way that is intentionally alienating to readers
not connected to Nigeria or its history, a method that both has a significant
pay-off at the end, and gives the novel its extended metaphor of a person or
group of people finding their true home, coming to terms with their past, or
otherwise righting some existing wrong.

interested in the intersection of science fiction and environmental change will
enjoy the ways Lagoon looks at
humanity’s effect on the environment and how it can be interpreted by
outsiders.  Fans of contemporary
science fiction will enjoy the immediacy of Okorafor’s story, as will those
looking for a story that decenters traditional United States-centric science
fiction narratives.  Readers of
“new weird” science fiction and fantasy will enjoy the ways that Okorafor
blends myth, science, and horror elements to create a story that challenges
readers on many levels.