An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

There are many kinds of escape.  Some stories tell of the escape from a dead planet, a dead end existence in which extinction is inevitable.  Some novels describe the escape from childhood ignorance, or the oppression of ideas that hold back the soul.  There are tales which pour into the imagination an escape from bondage or other force which dehumanizes, diminishes, plunders.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, as it happens is all of these stories, an more.  From a purely narrative level, it is the story of Aster, of Q Deck, on the generation ship Matilda, 300 years from earth and yet not so far as to escape its ghosts.  Just like the allegory The CaveAn Unkindness of Ghosts casts shadows of the past onto a future that is utterly unlike what we have known, and at the same time far too familiar.  Aster is clever, Aster is special, Aster is exemplary, and yet Aster cannot escape the barracks, the guards, the overseers, and the constant cold of a ship whose masters care only for their own comforts and live in constant fear of a lower-class uprising.

Solomon’s masterpiece debut flips the script on familiar science fiction hero tropes, in which power is a mutable thing, a thing that can be seized, wielded, transferred.  All Aster’s power lies in her mind, and in the tenuous connections she can forge between others on the margins of power.  There is no hero, in this novel, only people who do their best, and those who do their worst.

In Aster’s world, words have become something else, nearly unrecognizable from their origins.  Alchematics, botanarium, meema, surgeon general, these and more flow through a torrent of action and reaction, work, sleep, lockdowns, searches, doctoring, loving, living, and dying.  Dead already is Aster’s mother, Lune, once a genius and now a ghost, haunting Aster through her journals and the stories others tell about her, dead soon is the Sovereign, whose symptoms somehow mirror Lune’s, 25 years ago, before she went, and may hold the secret to freeing Matilda.

With hints of Snowpiercer, touches of The Underground Railroad, and kinship with Who Fears Death, this novel is a necessary addition to contemporary science fiction, a conflagration of things lost and found and maybe, just maybe, hope.

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The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, by S.L. Huang

In a modern interpretation of the epistolary novel, S.L. Huang’s 2016 novella, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist examines one of the oldest unknowns, the vast depths of our own ocean system.  Drawing from myths of mermaids as old as sea travel, this story is one of first contact, politics, and, in its way, love.

Told from the perspective of Cadence Mbella by some  unknown writer, it is made up of recordings of her own subvocalizations during the time that she attempts contact with a recently discovered species of intelligent sea creatures who leave so deep in the ocean that they can’t even see, but communicate and sense in other ways.  But something goes wrong when a militarized group attempts to circumvent her research and instead kidnap one of the so-called mermaids.

This sets off a series of events that eventually leads Dr. Mbella back to the sea, to discover, as deeply as a human can, the extent of the Atargati way of life.

Despite its short length, the novella manages to present the reader with a lot to consider; from its in medias res beginning to its heartbreaking and eye-opening conclusion, the language Huang uses to tell the story is some of the most evocative in the contemporary SF canon.  This is one of those stories that redefines what it is to be human, what science is, and how we think about myth and culture.

The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden

The world ends with fireworks and a pop concert, as we’ve come to expect.  South Africa, and particularly the southeast coast city of  Port Elizabeth has tried to move beyond Apartheid, beyond the poverty of global south post-colonialism, but time has a long memory and more short-lived humans are often destined to repeat history, despite all good intentions otherwise.  Because the problem with good intentions is the secrets every person hides, and for some, those secrets can kill.

The Prey of Gods, while it has an apocalyptic feel, is a novel of new beginnings, wonder, and family.  All the main characters have both something to hide, and must work to move past whatever secrets keep them in a place of darkness or fear.  There are, of course, villains, but even they are driven by a history written when the world was still young, and can’t help themselves.  This is where the novel excels, in fact, taking a mythologized history and literalizing it to create a speculative future.  The gods lived, died, and are now reborn.  What humanity does in response what drives the story.

The large cast of characters in this novel makes it difficult to pin down the driving plot, however it is Muzi’s desire to live a life outside the shadow of his larger-than-life grandfater, Stoker’s desire to live a life free of lies of identity and personality, and Nomvula’s desire to have a mother who is more than a shell of a person, to have someone in her life who really cares about her, that sets the world on fire and pushes the story to its inevitable conclusion.  Throw in a not-so-young-anymore pop diva who remade herself in the image of a woman who never knows fear or pain, a goddess of death determined to take over the world, and a drug dealer with a penchant for the new, and you’ve got the kind of volatile situation that leads to the birth of artificial intelligence and a new species of sentient robots, as well as genetically engineered extinct animal hybrids on the loose.

The Prey of Gods is a buzz-saw of a novel, because it manages to squeeze so much into so few pages, and although the second third of the story drags just a little with the necessity of pushing so many character viewpoints into a short period of chaotic time, there’s plenty still to chew on when the smoke clears.  Overall this novel is a great debut and positive outlook for the future of speculative fiction.

Doctors Prefer Lesbians: An Exploration of the Relationships between the 12th Doctor and Bill Potts

The Doctor has never been good at dealing with the relationships of his companions.  From the First Doctor, when he pretty much swept Susan out of the TARDIS, shoeless and with nothing but love in her heart and the clothes on her back, to the Twelfth official incarnation in Peter Capaldi when he gave Clara the cold shoulder for an entire season and then ignored her pain for another season for having and losing a relationship with Danny, we’ve seen some pretty passive-aggressive and downright odd behaviors in the Doctor when his companions seek companionship outside of him.

And then we had were given Season 10, wrapped up like a gift, and things changed.

It could be said that the Doctor learned from his experiences with Clara and her relationships, yet the Doctor has had all memory of Clara erased, so something else is causing his general aplomb over finding out Bill’s been having a strange experience with another college student, his ability to take human love in stride and even express empathy over Bill’s losing Heather at the end.  Heather is even a small part of why the Doctor decides to start traveling again, and asking Bill to go with him–he is once again willing to entertain the possibilities of the universe, instead of just repeating that she’s not human anymore and that’s that.

Bill, as every fan who’s seen season 10 should know by know, is openly gay, the first of the Doctor’s companions to be, so to speak, canonically gay, even though there are a few others who had bisexual or homosexual encounters written into their stories–most notably Ace.  The question is, then, does this have an effect on how the Doctor treats Bill?

The answer is, of course, that the Doctor treats each of his companions differently, and treats everyone differently depending upon which regeneration he’s in, but it seems that the Doctor is not only supportive but empathetic of Bill’s crushes and relationship woes in a way he never was previously, even going back to the Classic era.  The most notable relationship that was actually written into the show in the ’70s was Jo Grant’s meeting and eventually deciding to marry Dr. Clifford Jones in The Green Death.

Anyone who’s seen that story will recall that the Doctor was disbelieving at first when Jo wanted to go off to Wales to work with Jones instead of going with him to Metabilis 3, and then openly suspicious of Jones when finally drawn to Wales himself.  The Doctor was taken aback when Jo decided to get married and stop working with him, as though he simply didn’t understand how a mere romantic relationship could trump what he and Jo already had.

3rd Doctor and Jo Grant, with from Deep Breath originally spoken by the 12th Doctor and Clara
Hints of a future incarnation, perhaps?

Years pass, Doctor Who goes on a lengthy hiatus, and then the 9th Doctor returns, to meet another young blond who doesn’t yet know much about the world but is willing to go off on adventures with him.  The Doctor this time falls into the paramour role, particularly in his 10th incarnation, trying on the role of the lover as though he’s tired of being left out and wants to know what it is humans are constantly getting so worked up about.

Predictably, it doesn’t end well, but the Doctor bounces back and meets a nice young doctor who has a crush on him but makes the decision to separate herself from him, and in the ensuing departure the Doctor actually seems to learn something important about human relationships that will have a significant impact on his next regeneration.

Enter the 11th Doctor, whose reliance upon pantomime and bravado thinly disguises his inability to negotiate Amy’s relationship with Rory and what it means to be close to a young human woman without the complications of romance getting in the way.  The Doctor, after all, only decides to make sure Amy and Rory’s relationship doesn’t conveniently falter because there is something significant about her time and why he was pulled to her house with the scary crack in the wall and he’s worried that if anything changes because of him something terrible will happen.  But at least he hasn’t fallen into the old love trap like he did the last time.

The Doctor doesn’t seem terribly disturbed by Rory’s being forced to follow Amy around like a lovestruck orphan puppy, in much the same way Mickey did the same to Rose in series 1.  He seems to accept that heterosexual relationships among humans are unequal and in many ways deeply shaming for at least one half of the partnership.  Even as Rory gains traction and demonstrates his value as a real companion, his role is undercut by the drama, first of Amy’s being the mother of River Song and thus being the center of an entire season arc, and then of his own increasing desire not to be in the TARDIS anymore and lack of general enjoyment when he gets swept up into yet another adventure.  The Doctor doesn’t seem to mind as long as Amy is happy, and Amy seems to be happy until Rory gets sent back into the past by a weeping angel and she realizes she must choose real life if she ever wants to see him again, and even this ending undercuts Rory’s courage in ending his own life to create a paradox which saves himself and Amy.  The Doctor even tries to convince Amy to change her mind.

Clara’s relationship with Danny Pink was a disaster from the very beginning, not helped in the least by the Doctor’s view that he deserves to have an opinion about whom Clara dates; in this case there doesn’t seem to be anything significant about Danny or whether Clara is with him, and thus the Doctor has no rational reason–in his view–to support her in any way in this relationship.  Somehow, the Doctor even becomes face blind and doesn’t connect Orson Pink, whom he meets in “Listen,” with the very same Danny Pink who looks just like him.  It’s a very passive aggressive situation, not helped by the fact that often Clara only seems to be staying with both of them out of a contrarian desire to always be the best at everything.

With Clara, the Doctor seems to be at his most jealous, perhaps because she is the first human companion he’s had in hundreds of years who has come close to being an equal.  Clara’s character development resembles Ace’s, who was at one point being groomed to enter the Timelord Academy.  Clara, though she is no longer fragmented, is still something more than human, and for her to have such human urges as the one which drove her to seek a romantic relationship with Danny, is quite disturbing to the Doctor, who admits that may not understand humans at times but still believes he is deserving of honesty from his companions.

The tone of Series 9, the post-Danny series, is really set at the very beginning by Missy, when she explains the difference between Timelord and human relationships by comparing what the Doctor has with Clara to a lady and her pet dog.  Though Missy is generally unpredictable and often unhinged, she still grew up in Timelord society, and thus can speak to the more platonic, egalitarian relationships that she knew, and against which humanity will always fall short, in her estimation.  Too, though the Doctor has come to understand the power of human love in his many interactions with humans, he no doubt has a difficult time parsing the many nuances of relationships, particularly the heterosexual ones he’s witnessed as a majority and against which all his friendships with female humans necessarily are judged.  It may be possible that he’s always felt uncomfortable in the highly gendered human civilizations he’s encountered, and because he keeps regenerating into what humans consider male, found himself behaving like one out of constant social pressure–or simply having it rub off on him.

Which brings us back to Bill.  Given what we know about Timelord biology, and the fact that every Timelord has the potential to regenerate into a spectrum of genders and gender presentations, the Doctor’s understanding of relationships must be most comparable to what humans would describe as pansexual or bisexual, with the caveat that it was also most likely asexual/aromantic.  Indeed, given what we know about Timelord regeneration, it could be said that everything we understand about Timelord gender is false, and only judged through our own oppressively binary lens of gender.  It’s possible Timelords don’t even have gender, or that it doesn’t mean the same thing as it does to humans.  Referring specifically to the scene in “Hell Bent” in which the General regenerates into a female presentation and the guard refers to her as Ma’am instead of Sir, it’s entirely possible that the Timelords have absorbed a more binary form of address from those cultures with whom they have come in contact over the millenia, or even that whatever has been translated into English is just the best approximation of address that humans would understand.

Either way, the fact that Bill dates people of the same gender as herself must come through to the Doctor as a more equal sort of relationship, as he is able to judge these all-too-human functions, much like his relationship with the Master has always been–one in which they sparred, intellectually, for a sort of victory over each other, but in which both always respected and loved the other, to the point that when the Doctor thought he was dying he sent his confession dial to Missy, whom he considered his best friend.  Somehow the Doctor is more at ease in considering Bill’s potential relationships, and even in supporting them.  Just last week, in “Extremis,” the Doctor went out of his way to include a note about Penny in an email he sent himself from an alien computer simulation, so that he could tell Bill to call her, before it’s too late.  He’s never seemed compelled to push at Bill’s potential paramours, or conform to a semi-hostile heterosexual male posturing in the way he did with Mickey, Rory and Danny.  Even Jack often made the 9th and 10th Doctors seem more at ease–Jack’s disturbing inability to die aside–than some of his female companions did.  Perhaps the 10th Doctor’s manic effusion was directly related to the hetero mating urges of his companions.  He was considerably calmer and more measured when Donna Noble was in the TARDIS than with either Rose or Martha.

I believe that in his way the Doctor has always been a little in love–in his own way, in the same way he is in love with humanity in general–with all his companions, all the way back to Ian and Barbara, whether or not he would admit it, and to have to watch some of them fall into such petty things as heterosexual relationships, with their archaic mating rituals and painful lack of honesty until, generally, it’s too late, must have been particularly tiring for a Timelord who, although he’d left his people behind and often expressed distaste for them, was still raised on more egalitarian ideals.  I love that Timelord procreation and romantic relationships–if they exist–are still in the realm of mystery for viewers of the show, and that the Doctor really only brings out his feelings for his humans, who have such attachment to those sorts of things.  And I love that the Doctor and Bill’s relationship thus far has been so close, with often biting honesty, and that he has been so supportive of her in so many ways.

The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson

Once
again, Nalo Hopkinson breathes fresh life into a genre that too often centers
the stories of the young, the idealistic, the mainstream.  The
New Moon’s Arms
tells the story of the old, the ancient, those pushed to
the edges and forgotten by time.  After
a life spent running from her own past identity, then spending two years
nursing her father through his fatal battle with cancer, Calamity (AKA
Chastity) Lambkin hopes to be able to move on with her life.  An anonymous fling with a chance-met
funeral guest seems to be a good first step on that path.

But
before she realizes Calamity is at the edge of another significant life change:
menopause.  After a life lived
doing as she desires, chasing every pleasure, Calamity isn’t sure how to move
forward or where the path even is anymore.  One thing she is finding out though: what was once lost will
return, what is hidden will come to light, and getting old is no reason to stay
stuck in the same old ruts.

The New Moon’s Arms is based
in the West Indies on a fictional island that is part of a fictional island
nation.  Like all good fantasy
stories, it begs the reader to believe a little bit in magic, drawing on the
folklore and history of West Indian culture.  Like all of her stories, Hopkinson forces the reader to
confront the darker aspects of the world and human nature as Calamity is forced to remember the events surrounding her own mother’s disappearance, and come to
terms with the decisions that led her to her present in the novel.  Rather than being a one-dimensional
hero’s journey, however, The New Moon’s
Arms
draws together the lives and stories of people from Calamity’s family
and past life, lifting them up like a hurricane uproots entire islands,
throwing them together in a way that forces change and forces people to deal
with the aftermath.

This
novel is written on multiple levels, allowing readers to engage at a place that
is meaningful for them.  Anyone interested
in non-European folklore will enjoy the way Hopkinson blends local island lore
with a colonial history that spans oceans and has major ramifications for
hundreds of years and multiple groups of people, particularly those of Western
African descent during the Atlantic slave trade.  Readers who enjoy fantasy that treats people as the most
important part of the story are sure to be enraptured by the dynamics of
Calamity’s family and friendships. 
Fans of new weird fiction and magical realism should check out this
novel.