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.

 

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Bronze Gods, by A. A. Aguirre

In
an action-filled mash-up of steampunk and high fantasy, Janus Mikani and
Celeste Ritsuko are detective inspectors at the Criminal Investigation Division
in the city of Dorstaad; they work the night shift, tracking down criminals and
generally cleaning up after their daytime counterparts in a city whose bad
elements never seem to sleep. 

 Apart
from the rarely-used blend of fantasy elements, this novel is firmly in the
realm of mystery/suspense character dramas, with the relationship between the
inspectors Mikani and Ritsuko being just as foregrounded as the greater mystery
they are trying to solve.  The
gruesome, magic-involved murder of the daughter of a powerful house leads to a
trail of deception and civil unrest that only roguish Mikani—with his strange,
possibly magical, ability to read people—and straitlaced Ritusko—whose
attention to detail and work ethic are second to none—are fit to solve.  Throw in an overworked department
chief, a few past relationships, and a phantom of the opera hiding beneath his
own theater, and this novel pushes all the required buttons for a fast-paced
fantasy thriller.

The
novel relies on typical mystery structure in order to further the
worldbuilding.  Without too much
exposition, the story reveals a world reminiscent of some popular fantasy
tropes, but leaves just enough unknown to be a tantalizing aspect of the novel
instead of forgettable. 

Readers
who like thrillers or fantasy that errs on the romantic side will enjoy the
multiple levels of romantic tension that operate within Bronze Gods.  Anyone
looking for a different take on second world fantasy will be intrigued by
Aguirre’s blending of multiple subgenres. 
Those looking for a fast-paced fantasy read should take a look at this
novel.

Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott

Jessamy
Tonor was born fighting, into a world where the way one looks determines
everything they will ever be able to achieve or aspire to.  But all Jessamy wants to do is run the
Fives, the national competition of strength, agility, and endurance that can
turn even a lowly Commoner into a hero. 
Except her Patron—noble—father has forbidden it.  Suddenly, though, Jessamy has an
opportunity to do the very thing she’s always dreamed, but the cost is the
comfortable and safe family life her father and mother have created almost out
of nothing for her and her sisters.

Court of Fives begins a new young adult
fantasy series full of vibrant and varied young people willing to risk
everything to get what they want out of life.  Jessamy and her sisters have to make hard choices, and
really challenge their understanding of the world in order to survive the
dangerous waters they find themselves in. 
 In twist after plot twist, Jessamy battles the avarice of one Lord out to use her family for
everything advantage they can give him while learning the history of a colonized nation—her mother’s people—trying to pry itself out form under the heel of its oppressors.  The situations Jessamy and her sisters
find themselves in, while they are part of a fantasy world, will be
recognizable and relatable to teen readers, and Elliott never stops taking her
readers seriously.

Elliott’s
world-building and characterization show a deft touch in this new series.  The history of Efea, where the story
takes place, is deeper than at first meets the eye, leaving plenty for the
reader to ponder and look forward to learning more about in the next
installment.  There is no shortage
of personalities and types in this novel, making the reader feel as though
these characters were about to spring off the page and into living, breathing
action.  Speaking of action, it’s a
story about a young woman who is not just capable, but amazingly athletically
skilled, who makes no apologies for her ability, right up to the end, and has
earned it every step of the way. 

Readers
looking for second-world Hunger Games
that features more dynamic and diverse characters need look no further than Court of Fives and its eventual
sequels.  Those who enjoy stories
that put characters in challenging positions where they must take difficult
decisions will like the suspense and action in this novel.  Anyone tired of fantasy that makes
assumptions and doesn’t think about social mores like gender roles and class
structure will enjoy the way Elliott questions everything, creating societies
that are believable and unique, with characters who are self-aware and actually
talk to each other about what matters to them.