It Takes Two: Radiance and A Stranger in Olondria

So I sat here at my computer, staring at tumblr posts as the scrolled by, and thought to myself that I hadn’t done much writing–of any stripe–in quite a while.  I’ve really fallen off the book reviewing wagon. My reading hasn’t dropped off in any significant way, but I just don’t have the mental energy to write reviews, edit them, and then get them out.

So instead, I thought back to a few things I’ve read–recently and not so recently–and tried to come up with a theme-y feeling, or feelings-ish theme that I find weaving through at least two novels.

And lo, a theme post is born.

Here I’m going to talk about Cat Valente’s Radiance, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, both of which I’ve read and reviewed in the past six months. (You can find those reviews here on or my Goodreads page).  I’m probably going to be too lazy to go back and find links for them.

It Takes Two: Stories of Dead Women

Radiance is (spoilers?) the story of Severin Unck’s final days, her final film, her final journey out among the stars of the alt-Solar System discovered in the Victorian period and subsequently settled all the way out to Pluto itself.  In A Stranger in Olondria, the reader is presented with the coming-of-age story of Jevick, and islander who travels to the mainland nation of Olondria chasing stories and the learning he has glimpsed via a foreign tutor, but his quest for self-fulfillment is subsumed by the story, of a sick young woman he met on ship during the crossing, who revisits him as a ghost and haunts him, prodding him to write her story as she tells it in Jevick’s dreams.

What these two novels have in common is not simply the fact that each is concerned with the story of a woman who is now dead, but that each woman’s story is being told, in some way, by another character–or characters.  Severin’s father, the most famous filmmaker in that version of the solar system, is trying not only to recreate her last days from the memories and speculations of those around her, but to find a proper film medium in which to tell this story.  Jevick’s obsession with the written word is whatt draws the young woman’s ghost to him, an unrelenting commandment to put words to paper, to save her story in a way that her body, her life, could not be saved.

Each novel is a heartbreaking and stunning look at the power of art.  Art creates and drives people to create; stories tell more than their text.  Art is also sinister and dangerous, driving people to the edge, further, making them vulnerable to the manipulations of others.  Severin was driven to understand the murky ends of a small town on Venus, the inhabitants of which were divers for one of the companies who harvested milk from the great, semi-sentient beings living in Venus’s warm seas.  With her documentaries, she pushed limits in ways her father never would with the drama and intrigue he ladled into his fictional films.  Having grown up in a house where nothing was ever really real, having all been caught on film, Severin spent her life documenting instead of creating fiction.  In this way, Valente continues to play with notions of the real–as every documentary is still an interpretation, and is informed by the experiences and opinions of the documentarians.

A Stranger in Olondria pulls from the vast tradition of telling stories with other stories.  It is an astounding piece of worldbuilding, creating not only the people and living culture of Jevick’s home, Olondria, and other nations, but also the stories by which those places know themselves.  Jevick is so caught up in what he thinks is his story of discovery and growing up–almost a sort of ironic “noble savage” narrative, on his part–that he fails to see what is right in front of him.  In the same way, Severin’s father is so caught up in turning everything into fiction that in the end he doesn’t really understand his daughter, and is obsessed with crafting the perfect fiction to describe her real, non-fictional life.

The importance of these two narratives dealing with the stories of dead women is twofold.  First, in pushing each story-writer character to craft the story of the dead woman in each–via their different but equal motivations–the authors are not telling how these women died, but how they lived.  Though one is dead at the beginning of the novel and the other dies at an important turning point for the main character, the reader is fully immersed in the very real and vibrant lives of these women.

The second aspect of importance is not simply that these women had lives which are a strong part of the narrative, but that they did something with those lives.  These women had, and throughout their respective novels continue to have, agency and effect over the course of their lives.  Severing took control of a life she’d grown up feeling she had no control over, and went out amongst the planets to give context and reality to other worlds.  The ghost haunting Jevick belongs to a young woman who grew up illiterate, daughter of two worlds in a bizarrely colonial landscape that left her little room to be herself.  She dies from exposure to a disease she had contracted while on an adventure, and even in her sickness she refuses to be treated as a simple invalid.  In death, she is powerful and takes on a new life, part of which is the telling of her youth, and the other a hunger for literacy and immortality in the stories that Jevick prizes so highly.

The glint of immortality shines strongly through each of these novels, hastened by their meta-textual themes–film in Radiance, and writing in A Stranger in Olondria.  Not only do these novels share a similar theme, but they also share a carefully crafted duality that is both satisfying and challenging to read.  Though these novels are different in voice and style, they are well-matched.

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

is the difference between good and good enough?  Sisters Imogene and Marin have been asking themselves this
question nearly their entire lives. 
Imogen is a budding novelist, Maren a professional ballet dancer; both
are looking for that one break that will take them from maybe to
break-out.  Enter Melete, a
prestigious artists’ retreat where creators in nearly every discipline go to
focus solely on their craft, and sometimes leave with everything they ever
dreamed of.

Roses and Rot is a slow spiral, deeper
into Imogen’s past and the otherworldly atmosphere at Melete.  Told by Imogen, who is interested in
fairy tales, layer after layer is peeled back from a world that is not what it
seems, much in the way that children shed their fancies and imaginings on the
way to adulthood. 

It would be easy
to compare this novel to Neil Gaiman’s work, and though it shares many
similarities in tone and atmosphere—particularly to his later work—Howard has
crafted a story that interrogates the supernatural aspects with which many
readers are fascinated, while staying firmly grounded in the lives of the
people experiencing the very real events in which they are embroiled.  Because some facts and experiences are
all too real, particularly the Imogen and Marin’s painful childhood with an
abusive mother. 

This is a novel
that finds whimsy and beauty in the greater world while at the same time always
remembering that darkness exists in a very visceral way.  Readers looking for a fantasy novel
that doesn’t flinch from dark topics while still treating them with sensitivity
will enjoy Howard’s take on fairy tales and art.  Those looking for urban fantasy with a
strong contemporary feel will enjoy Howard’s worldbuilding and style.  Those who enjoy stories that push the
boundaries between fiction and metafiction are encouraged to check out this
deeply character-driven fantasy novel.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

crosses all borders, but so does beauty. 
Americanah spans the Atlantic
Ocean, crossing Nigeria, to the United Kingdom, to the United States, and back,
and across the miles, the bond between Ifemelu and Obinze, somehow,
remains.  In a novel that is
remarked upon for its lethal skewering of race in the United States and the way
American foreign policy affects nations the world over, a love story is created
that becomes a metaphor for so much more. 

Obinze and Ifemelu leave their native Nigeria in search of something else—they
don’t really even know what, other than stories—in the west.  And both, eventually, return to Nigeria
and find a way to make a life for themselves there.  Along the way, the reader is introduced to a palette of
friends, relatives, and barest acquaintances who color every experience that
the pair have.  Adichie revels in
the good and the bad, every scene a delight of sight and sound, grounding the
novel as something lived-in and worn with all the experience of real life.

style of the novel is matter-of-fact, confident in its lines, accepting no
nonsense.  Adichie’s narrative
carries the reader along, as if in a trance, floating in that corner of
Ifemelu’s brain as if part of her. 
Adichie layers narrative through the use of Ifemelu’s blog, allowing her
characters to say what needs to be said, have experiences that go beyond the
reach of a story and out into the real world.  It’s a subtle and affecting novel, one that every reader in
the U.S. should pick up.

attuned to deeply personal narrative journeys will be spellbound by Ifemelu’s
journey and the experience of her inner consciousness.  Those looking for something deeper than
your average Sparks or Picoult will enjoy the depths Adichie is able to reach
with such a simple-seeming plot. 
Anyone interested in peeking outside the traditional realm of white
publishing should definitely get hold of this one.

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.