Zero Sum Game, by S.L. Huang

When
people need a job done, they call Cass Russell.  In Los Angeles, she’s know for doing the impossible, which
is why Dawna Polk begs Cass to rescue her sister Courtney from a drug cartel
compound, where Courtney had inexplicably gotten herself imprisoned.  And then Cass’s day got even weirder.

Up
and down the parking-lot-freeways of L.A., Cass and her tentative allies chase
one shadowy group of people after another, trying to solve the mystery of
Courtney Polk.  Zero Sum Game is near non-stop action,
fueled by Cass’s uncanny abilities with complex mathematics, the kind that
makes her look like Spiderman, Batman, and Ironman all rolled into one, with a
little Joker thrown in around the edges. 
Because Cass Russell is not afraid to kill.  Life is a zero sum game, and when someone has a gun pointed
at you, the only way to win is to kill first and ask questions later.

Huang’s
writing is dialog-driven, full of action and complicated mathematical
calculations.  Cass is a mystery,
the story told from her point of view, pulling the reader along one plot twist
after another until the final reveal. 
With rumors of a group of people who not only can read but control
minds, Cass and her allies never know who to trust, and Huang is skilled at
setting up plots that continue to unravel unexpectedly and give the reader
plenty to chew over.  

Readers
who enjoy stories full of moral ambiguity, with no clear heroes, will breath a
sigh of relief at the brash, matter-of-fact way Cass approaches the world, and
the people she comes up against. 
Those who enjoy science fiction that relies heavily on higher
mathematical or scientific principles will find themselves joy-riding with Cass
as she leaps tall buildings and effortlessly defies the laws of L.A.
traffic.  Anyone looking for their
next superhero should definitely check out Zero
Sum Game
and the rest of the Russell’s Attic series.

On SF and Genrefication

You read that right.  It doesn’t say genre fiction, it says genrefication.  Kinda like when Hugo Gernsback started publishing fiction that had a large scientific or technology component and called it Scientifiction.  Dumb name, right?  He probably felt terribly witty when he first came up with it, kinda like whoever first said steampunk, or cyberpunk, or maybe like Hero Protagonist crashing through suburban yards, thinking he was going to beat the pizza delivery countdown only to go splashing straight into someone’s in-ground pool.  It happens.

I have, probably to my ultimate emotional detriment, been doing some reading into the “history” of Science Fiction (SF).  I finally know how the Hugo Award got its name (or at least from whom).  I’ve read all about how witty Brian Aldiss is, and all those other white dudes–American and British–who liked to trash other writers, and SF itself for a while, for not conforming to one tradition or another.  I read literary critics who traced various periods of SF and how it conformed to/participated in/influenced one SF period or other.  And what I can say, without knowing the entire history, without having read all of–or indeed, really, any–of the Golden Age SF space operas and genre dialectics disguised as fiction, what has really defined SF is simple: the belief of one or another faction in their right to define or to be emblematic of a genre.

Various sources place Mary Shelley as the beginning of SF, but while many point to how Frankenstein included scientific speculation or aspects of gothic horror which led to explorations of the fantastic and so on and so on, few bother to talk about the fact that Shelley wanted to do something new.  She was constrained by her life and wanted to tell a story that was different.  Of course she drew on the Gothic, the Romantic, and other influences.  She was living at the height of Romanticism.  And the idea that 1960′s space opera was not part of the same Romantic continuum is just blind stupidity, if you ask me.  How would we ever have got to Kvothe’s love affair with himself if not for the incredible self-regard of those writing in the 1970′s, dreaming of all the futures that would contain only themselves?  It’s pretty much War of the Worlds all over again.  The British colonizing themselves.  Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov fellating themselves.  Same thing.

Of course, these men were products of their generations, the worlds in which they lived.  Heinlein is known for having included non-white characters in his stories–even going so far as to put great effort into making them likable and then revealing that they were black or latino–but would he ever have considered making space in his genre for a black or latino writer to create their own stories?  Hugo thought he was doing great things for a genre, and is recognized for that, but plenty of critics assert that Hugo Gernsback ruined whatever chance American SF had for becoming a fully developed literary genre.  That is, had Hugo not created Scientifiction, the SF revolution that has been taking place over the past 5-10 years (and which is, coincidentally, represented by the Hugo Awards crisis of every year from now to Earth-Death) might have happened in the 1920′s. 

And I suppose there are those who will ask, hands to their breasts in expectation of imminent fainting, that if SF’s development in the early 20th century hadn’t happened, if maybe Heinlein et al hadn’t had such time and space to speculate, we might never have waterbeds or cell phones or geostationary satellites or Grok.  Well, it’s true we might not have Grok.  But the rest?  Who’s to say a woman might not have invented those things?  Who’s to say others who did not have the chance to write in a world full of Hugo and Heinlein, might not have created all the worlds we now know, and more, had they been given their own space?

Because this is the crux.  Those who only want to see space opera SF written by and for white guys, only believe that white guys can come up with all those ideas.  That allowing someone else who isn’t a white guy to write their (and our) stories, would be allowing the possibility for sub-par production to sneak in.  People who only want white guy SF already believe everyone else is an alien.  No wonder it was so easy for so many guys to write Africans and minorities as aliens (looking at you Resnick).  However much Heinlein fought for racial equality, if he only ever saw himself as qualified to write minorities, he’s just a gatekeeper, not a visionary.  

SF is a million worlds and billions and billions of words and is infinitely more rich when everyone has a chance to participate.  What really defines SF is not trends and influences and tropes, it is the efforts of a few to draw a line around their playground and keep everyone out.  And this great club to which we all belong in our own ways–as readers, writers, critics, media consumers–is so much weaker for it.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

England’s
magic is failing.  Every
thaumaturge in London knows whom to blame, but no one has an answer for
England’s magical woes.  Set during
the time of Napolean and England’s rapid colonial expansion, Sorcerer to the Crown takes on
imperialism, nationalism, and the fantasy genre itself with a humorous and warm
first installment in Cho’s new Sorcerer Royal series.

Prunella
Gentleman is a young woman raised at a school for gentlewitches, where young
ladies are taught not to use their magical abilities.  Zacharias Wythe is the newest Sorcerer Royal, a young man
still, and fighting to overcome the obstacle of his irregular ascension to the
title.  Both have secrets to keep;
some secrets, even Prunella and Zacharias themselves don’t fully realize.  They are, after all, magicians.  Zacharias is trying to find the source
of England’s lack of magic, defending himself from other thaumaturges who
believe he is the cause; orphan Prunella is trying to make her way in the world
while learning more about her past.

Part
romance, part fairy story, part novel of intrigue, Sorcerer to the Crown is a galloping ride across England’s storied
countryside, deflating plot devices and tropes just as fast as Prunella can
slap down a hex thrown by an angry mer-creature.  Cho breathes energetic and vivid life into all her
characters, while her narrator reminds one of the conversational early novel
tone of the eighteenth-century, handily dropping the reader into setting and
scene, leaving the reader free to enjoy Cho’s take on fantasy and fairy. 

Fairyland comes off both
better and worse than many a tale that treats fairy with proper dread and
awe.  Reminiscent of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and echoing
the irreverence of Monty Python and the
Holy Grail
, Cho’s story delights in the vast imagination that created fairy
stories in the first place, while using Fairyland as a useful foil against
which to explore our own notions of foreignness and, indeed, Otherness.  Sorcerer
to the Crown
is a story about the other.  And while Cho lets readers float along happily without
enumerating every point of magical logic and lore, as some authors will do, she
does not let the reader off easy when it comes to considering the humanity of
her characters, not least because her characters will always demand it for
themselves.

Readers who enjoy fairy
stories that don’t take themselves too seriously will love the way Cho throws
everything together with a dash of irreverence and a whole lot of panache.  Prunella is the sorceress inside every
reader, a more confident Hermione, a more calculating Katniss, reminiscent of
another Cat—Cat Barahal of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series—and never ready
to give up.  Cho is obviously
familiar with Austen and the Bronte’s, and readers who enjoy period language
and manners will feel right at home with Sorcerer
to the Crown.

On Historical Accuracy

GRRMartin, it seems, can’t stay out of the news–at least within SFFdom–and while I’m definitely not going to devote a post to his latest ass-hattery concerning “rape vs. dragons,” I would like to write a post in response to the utterly stupid ways in which he calls upon “historical accuracy” in his media creations in order to let his own self off the hook for, well, everything.

As far as I’m concerned–and I accept that there are plenty of people who may disagree with me on this–historical accuracy is only valid if you are actually writing about actual history.  This could be biography or historical fiction, or even SFF set in a historical era, but unless your work is specifically set in a particular time and particular place in documented earth-time, your claims to be worrying about historical accuracy are stupid, at the very least.  And even if you are writing about a specific earth history, unless you take into account the fact that earth history is generally written by the victors, whitewashed, and otherwise represses marginalized groups, your history is bullshit.

My point is that GRR is unable to account–not for the actual historical accuracy of his work, which is, as I already proved, not even a side of the fence on which to fall in this discussion–for his position in the present, and in this historical context.  He is completely unable to fathom his own participation in the time and place in which he lives, and the incredible privilege in which his own existence and media are steeped.  Every author brings something of themselves to the table when they sit down to make a story, and unfortunately for GRR, he brings his white maleness and little else.  He has shown, time and again, that the only historical context he’s basing his work on is his own narrow interpretation of a really non-existent “medieval” period from which his world didn’t actually spring.  His Song of Ice and Fire world came from his head, like all fantasy writers, and the rape and violence and the Orientalism and the white supremacy also came from his head.

Now, since I don’t feel like talking about GRR any longer, let’s talk about some writers who actually do write with an awareness of their own historical context.  This will be a series of posts, since there’s no way I can talk about these great authors in brief.

1. Kate Elliott is primarily known for epic fantasy series–she’s written a few million words, probably, by now–which feature meticulous world building.  All of them include technology or economic systems which resemble those the reader might recognize from a particular period on Earth.  For example, in the Crossroads trilogy the first culture to whom the reader is introduced, the people of the Hundred, eat a rice-based diet, wear sandals, have a relatively warm climate, and live in houses that might remind some readers of homes in Japan.  However these people are not Japanese or Asian any more than they are the giant eagles upon which they ride, and their contemporary culture is based in a belief system which grew up over a period of possibly hundreds or thousands of years, and their philosophy of government and military reflects that.  Elliott blends characters’ points of view, the narrator’s descriptions of geography and settings, and action to let the reader in on a history and culture she has obviously thought a lot about.

Elliott is very clear that her intention when world building is to create whole places and people and systems of living.  By creating whole cultures of people of a variety of skin colors, hair colors, eye colors, statures, and other physical markers, she shows she’s aware of and accounts for her own understanding of history and her place in it.  The fantasy genre is one devoted to imagination and exploring ideas through storytelling outside of traditional worlds and world-views.  Elliott doesn’t rely on tokens or other tropes of traditionally marginalized people to advance her stories.  Whatever prejudices exist in her novels are a product of the cultures she has created; because her characters behaving in a realistic way and have complicated psychologies and motivations–being products of their fully-grounded cultures–they elicit an emotional or intellectual response from the reader concerning our modern preconceptions and prejudices.

For example, still in the Crossroads trilogy, the religious system of the Hundred incorporates a temple devoted to the Merciless One, and one of her aspects is desire.  Temple initiates engage in sexual activity with people who come to the temple.  Desire is treated as a valid and expected part of humanity; rape, when the story begins, is much less common and treated as a greater crime because men don’t have control over women’s bodies, because sex is not regulated, in the ways we expect to find in our modern patriarchal culture.  This aspect of the story may make some readers uncomfortable, for some it will be quite freeing, but not matter the reaction of the reader Elliott’s writing treats the subject with sensitivity and doesn’t rely on tropes or stereotypes to get the idea across, allowing readers to make up their minds without being antagonized by poor storytelling.  

Elliott’s characters–protagonists and supporting characters alike, are three-dimensional people in their own right; some fit the traditional masculine and feminine roles we are used to seeing in fantasy, while many do not.  One of the things that is most compelling about Elliott’s work is that those who do not fit traditional descriptions are not used to exemplify those who do.  Rather than a Brienne of Tarth, who is used to illustrate to the reader what a “real” knight is, throughout Elliott’s stories we have women who are simply warriors or fighters, with much more complicated motivations and histories, with stories of their own to live, than being the woman who will eventually need to be rescued by a man, thus advancing his character development.  Elliott uses her imagination and her empathy to find the story to tell for characters from all walks of life, all ages, all genders.  She does not use them as merely plot points.

Elliott’s stories and characters are are products of their cultures and exist in tension with the demands of those cultures.  People are at the mercy of the geography and climate in which they live.  When armies go to war, they are are not the great hordes we are used to seeing in The Lord of the Rings.  They are relatively small, only as many as can be sustained by the pre-industrial communities from which they are drawn.  If great hordes do arise, there is a measurable effect on the land and people through which they maraud; crops are not sown or harvested, trade routes falter, government and law break down.  

One of my favorite aspects of Elliott’s writing concerns when cultures meet or collide in the course of a story.  In the Crossroads series, when a marauding group of bandits and thugs springs from the very midst of the Hundred–looting, enslaving, and, yes, occasionally raping along the way–Elliott doesn’t fall back on some oddball assumptions about what happened in feudal societies during a non-existent medieval period to explain how this could happen.  She allows the world itself to show the reader how a failure in justice more than a generation ago led to a slowly growing faction of people who decided not only to take justice into their own hands, but what justice is.  As characters learn more about the situation, the reader is shown what they and the people they meet think about it, and eventually what the greater repercussions of this horde will be.  When characters perpetrate violence, or have it perpetrated against them, there are real, perceivable, realistic outcomes.  Abnormal and anti-social behavior is acknowledged, it serves a narrative purpose within the story, and is not just used for ambiance or to lazily illustrate a character.  

Throughout her writing career, Elliott has shown she is aware of how “historical accuracy” has been used and misused within fiction, and that it is important to her to create fully functioning, dynamic worlds with a multitude of people and concerns, just like the actual Medieval Earth period was, just like all Earth historical periods are.  By creating no less than four cultural groups within the Crossroads trilogy (and even more than that in the Crown of Stars series) that have separate, fully functioning socio-political systems, she has also shown that she is aware of her own identity as an interpreter of history, and a member of our shared contemporary time and place.  

She understands that our world is made up of countless cultural groups, some of whom have been left out not just of representation, but of their accomplishments and deep history simply for being not white, not Christian, not European.  Not only does Elliott not default to whiteness and using non-white groups as externalized “others” against whom to compare her dominant culture, when she writes brown and black people Elliott does not include contemporary Earth tropes and stereotypes to “explain” the people she has written.  

We’re going to leave out the way that Elliott writes her fantasy elements, because that would make for an even longer post.

To conclude, as Elliott herself has written, The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building; from that I assert that the status quo really doesn’t need a novel about it.  There are assumptions about what fantasy literature is, from those within and without the genre, based upon the people who have been allowed to create it over the past hundred years, and Elliott chooses not to reinforce those assumptions in her work.  Truly, Elliott has shown that it is only lack of imagination, lack of empathy, which keeps authors from creating characters who do not look like themselves and who do not have recourse to agency or even human decency within their stories.  Let’s support more authors like her.

Stay tuned for the next post in this “series” and keep reading diversely.