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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Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer

When you live life in the sun, in the canopy of the great trees, your biggest fear is falling. Or so Unar thought, when she left her home to become a servant in the garden of Audblayin, one of the twelve deities of Canopy. She ran from a life of poverty, only to learn that even in the lap of birth and fertility, rot can fester.

Unar believes she has a destiny, and that despite her mistakes she can earn a place of power and authority in Audblayin’s Garden, and perhaps change things for the better. Unar is one of those rare unlikeable heroes that the reader can’t quite bring herself to root for, but nevertheless follows after curiously, just to see what the young woman will make of herself. She has real internal conflicts and occasionally does stupid things, for all the world just like the teenager she would otherwise be if not for her gift with growing things and ability to manipulate plants to her will. She’s selfish and often infuriatingly mercurial, but she also has a hard-learned sense of justice that will speak strongly to a lot of readers.

Beneath the unique setting of this novel, Daiyer has laced her story with layers of allegory and metaphor, which are its real driving force. What is the nature of godhood and why are the deities of the great forest so complicated? What is the long history that led to some people living in the canopy while others suffer and toil lower down, or even in the swamps at the feet of the great trees?   Slavery is a key point in the novel, and Daiyer’s treatment of it has its thought provoking moments, but even when it seems just a plot device her characters never waiver from being fully personified with agency and motivations of their own.

Readers who enjoy idea-driven speculative fiction will be pulled in by social and cultural world building of this novel. Those looking for a vivid and intriguing new fantasy series will like the unique physical world building. Daiyer has written a series debut that is by turns gripping and thought-provoking, and that bodes well for the next installment.