The Tuesday List: Bodies of Law

Woo! With new year’s came a new job for me, so in honor of yesterday being my first day as a research librarian at a major law firm in my area, here’s a list of books/series in which law/lawyers play a strong role.

  1. The Engineer Trilogy, by K.J. Parker

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I admit, I found Parker (and his books) a lot more interesting before I found out it was in fact just some dude who already was relatively successful in publishing.  Nevertheless, this is one of the few series that has merited multiple reads, and even knowing the twist at the end it’s fascinating to watch the ways that anarchy and order war with each other, and within the characters, to create this perfect storm of a war between two otherwise indifferent opponents.

2. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick

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Before it was a strangely cult classic film, this novel was a somewhat understated meditation on what it meant to be alive, and how civilization would go about legally defining life when artificially created humanoid beings not only existed, but were created as slaves to humans.

3. Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

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This tome of a speculative fiction novel deals with the ramifications of legal borders and boundaries in the digital age.  Two story worlds exist side by side: the video game world in which mules play according to a set of rules in order to earn and smuggle money out of a pay to play MMORPG along the lines of World of Warcraft, and the world of kidnapped young woman, ostensibly at the wrong place at the wrong time, who ends up flown around the world and back again, never knowing if she’ll get out alive, or even find out why it all happened to begin with.

4. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

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This is another story which happens because one man transgresses the religious laws of his people for his own gain, and creates a being who should never have become real.  It’s a story of emigration and coming of age, as well as one of found friendship despite cultural borders.

5. The Just City (Thessaly #1), by Jo Walton

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Plato’s Republic was a legal treatise modeled on the constitution of a human body, with the well-being of the well-run city-state being its allegorical goal.  So what happens when the actual Greek gods go back in time, pulling philosophers and cultural influencers out of their worlds just before their times of death, and try to actual create Plato’s imagined city?  Part time travel novel, part philosophical exercise, part celebrity fiction, The Just City plots a rough course through history and the motivations of humanity from all points.

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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.

Bellwhether, by Connie Willis

Bellwhether explores
the intersection of chaos and order. 
Two scientists, Sandra Foster and Bennett O’Reilly, working at the HiTek
corporation meet through a chance encounter and find themselves drawn to each
other more and more as the story progresses.  Sandra studies fads and their causes, and her narrative is a
constant catalog of trends of every sort. 
Bennett is trying to study chaos theory.  Both keep finding that there are too many variables involved
for them to get anywhere in their research.

Into
their lives walks Flip, the inter-office assistant and cause of all the chaos
in everyone’s lives at HiTek.  Flip
is the embodiment of ineptitude and laziness, almost a caricature of the office
assistant that nearly everyone who has worked an office job has encountered,
and also a constant embodiment of current trends in Boulder.  As Sandra begins to notice shifts in
fad behavior, Flip is almost always exhibiting the newest fads and trends. 

Willis
imbues Bellwhether with multiple
levels of irony as she develops this novella.  It is an idea-driven narrative that, while giving every
character a well-developed personality, is not overly concerned with dramatic
plotting.  The action comes out in
the ways in which characters are drawn together and pushed apart, how they
respond to change and create meaning from the circumstances in which they find
themselves.  Above all, Bellwhether is a story about human
nature.  It explores how even the
most anti-social behaviors can become the norm and foundation of social
interaction; it examines how change can be both a movement from one place to
another and also a constant that defines us as societies.

Readers
looking for a quirky, thoughtful story with high concentrations of trivia and
history will enjoy this novella. 
It will also be of interest to readers who enjoy speculative fiction
for, while it doesn’t have fantastic or overtly science-fictional elements, it
still participates in a 3part of genre fiction concerned with what-if
scenarios. 

Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link

            Kelly Link has a wonderful gift for fitting an entire novel
into every one of the short stories in this collection.  But heed this dire warning: the further
in you fall, the better the odds you’ll get in trouble.  Link leaves a lot left unsaid,
expecting instead that readers will fill in the gaps with their own
understandings and meanings.  You
might be led in directions you didn’t expect.  In Get in Trouble,
like in life, it is often the things we don’t say that have the greatest
significance, that tell the most important stories. 

            Link
writes in a conversational, sometimes colloquial tone that belies the heavier
themes in her stories.  Whether
she’s playing with the trope of the vampire lover, unable to be seen in
mirrors, who transformed into a needy former lover in “I Can See Right Through
You,” or what happens to a lonely girl just looking for a way out of her dreary
hometown in a world in which everyone, literally, is a superhero in “Secret
Identity,” Link seamlessly blends fantasy and reality.  “Origin Story” and “Light” both ask the
reader to decide what that phrase—get in trouble—really means.  Is trouble a place you can go to?  Something you can create or cause?  Is it a state of being or state of mind
that certain people just inhabit or embody? 

            Do
the stories in Get in Trouble
enumerate all the ways in which people can get in trouble, or exhort readers to
go out and do it?  Get in
trouble.  Go on, do it.  In some stories, characters don’t seem
to have a choice.  “Two Houses” is
a tale within a tale, describing ever-widening arcs of narrative and meaning.  Reality, it seems, is being written
only as fast as a story can be told. 
What is real, what is imagined, and what is enacted can’t be explained
or anticipated until after it has happened, and sometimes not even then.  And once it is over, the characters are
left to wonder, now that it is no longer happening, did it really happen at
all? 

            Get in Trouble first and foremost will appeal
to readers who love short stories, as each story in this collection is
carefully executed and tightly plotted. 
There is much more than meets the eye in each story.  Readers fascinated by the Gothic
stylings of Edgar Allan Poe or the more Macabre aspects of Neil Gaiman will
enjoy Link’s work.  Though she
doesn’t shy away from dark subjects, Link infuses each story with a
lighthearted sense of wonder at the possibilities and promise of a universe
unfettered, and readers who enjoy forward-looking science fiction or urban
fantasy will be swept off their feet by the vast universes that Get in Trouble’s stories inhabit. 

Review of Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu-Kabu

Whoa!  My first book review on this tumblr!  And I picked a hard one!  

My reading (note, not how I was able to read and enjoy it, but my ability to to analyze and talk about it) of Kabu-Kabu has to factor in a lot of conditions.  First, post-colonial, African, even African-American fiction is not a genre with which I’m overly familiar.  I read a ton of scifi/fantasy, and my MA English focused on the early modern and early novel periods of England.  Very different work, very different perspective.  The English were the colonizers, not the colonized.

Add to that I have a tendency to be somewhat at a loss with short story collections.  I guess in a lot of ways I’ve just trained my brain to move at novel pace, to expect so much more information than a short story generally hands you for free.  But anyway.

I promise not to make a rating scale part of my reviews, of any book I write about here.  I’ve never been fond.  Every book should be taken in its own context, should be its own model, even those that closely adhere to a genre.

First

From her website, nnedi.com, a synopsis, all the information I had when I bought it:

“Kabu Kabu – unregistered, illegal Nigerian taxis – generally get you where you need to go, but Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu Kabu takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations. This debut short story collection by award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor includes notable previously-published short work, a new novella co-written with New York Times bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, and a brief forward by Whoopi Goldberg.”

Just so you know what you’re getting into.

And without further ado my review of, or a few words on, Kabu-Kabu.

Why did I choose it?

Kabu-Kabu  was recommended to me by my favorite bookseller, friend, and former boss Ann Burlingham, owner of Burlingham Books in Perry, NY.  I decided to buy it because the title and synopsis reminded me of the gypsy cabs I used to take when I lived in Astana, Kazakhstan: how sometimes we used to feel as though we were taking our lives in our own hands when we got into one, that we might end up somewhere we didn’t expect; also, we’re talking about drivers that camped out at train stations, offering to drive people from Astana to Karaganda, over 200 km away.  Yes, yes, I know that Kazakhstan and Nigeria are far from being the same, but having read Okorafor’s stories of back roads and far-flung villages, there was definitely a resonance with my experiences of Kazakhstan.  I’m working on writing what I’ll loosely refer to as a memoir of that year.  Maybe I thought I’d learn something from Okorafor.  Maybe I have.

But there is still the question of why I chose Kabu-Kabu for my first review on this blog.  I wanted to challenge myself, and anyone who reads this blog, to read something outside the standard fare of science fiction, fantasy, any sort of American fiction really.  Okorafor is not bound by popular opinions of what fiction should be.  She writes the “weird stuff” as described by a little girl at one of her school visits.  She writes stories that present themselves to her, out of her imagination and the stories from her family and the people of Nigeria themselves.  Being white, growing up in predominantly white rural Western New York, most of what I surrounded me was pretty heteronormative, pretty white, pretty run-of-the-mill fiction.  I chose to challenge myself with Kabu-Kabu.

My initial thoughts.

Even before finishing, I was struck by how women-centered her stories were, how much meaning she could pack into even the shortest of her stories, and how human her characters were.  The opening mini-story, called “The Magical Negro,” alludes to the fact that her stories will not contain those tired tropes that feature black characters as a foil or “teacher” or “guide” to the white male protagonist.  But the women–the women.  I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a novel or collection that was so focused on the experiences of women, in such an honest way.

Themes

Voice

I think a lot of the meaning, and humanity, in Kabu-Kabu comes from Okorafor’s strength as a narrator, and how much control her narrator/s have over their stories.  The authority with which she writes about Nigerian-American women caught between worlds, or the mythological characters of her Igbo homeland like the windseekers, or little girls fighting baboons on their way to school–she sets tone, establishes theme, creates the scene like, well, like someone who has a PhD in English and is a professor of creative writing–it’s something more than just training or talent.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that her stories are so closely linked to her own life.  I think, though, that in rejecting the “traditional” fantasy story, the traditional male-dominated tropes, the “Western”-dominated point of view, and to such a degree, one becomes an authority, because to go back to what others have ordained as good is to become a traitor to oneself.  And, after reading Kabu-Kabu, that is something that could never be said of Nnedi Okorafor.

Characterization

As I mentioned earlier the majority of Okorafor’s stories feature prominent female leads, which of course fits well with the goal of this blog overall–to feature stories by and for women.  But to go further than that, the women of her stories do not all fall neatly into one type or role.  They are not all conventionally good, or nice, wise or sweet.  Some want or have families, some don’t.  Some are strong, others are weak.  But they are all human, all thoroughly immersed in their worlds.  Everyone has a stake their own life, even if they don’t realize it at first.  

Would I say the same of the male characters?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Some of them, like the father and title character of the “Popular Mechanic” or Asuquo’s love-interest (soul mate) in the Asuquo stories, surely aren’t simply types.  In a story like “The Black Stain,” however, I would argue that the male protagonists are types.  Each has a role to fill–the one a stay-at-home who refuses to assimilate new ideas, the other an adventurer who achieves a sort of stunted enlightenment–in order to advance the story and teach us the origin of the black stain.  "The Black Stain" is part of an overarching mythology of Okorafor’s Nigeria, her Africa, even, and mythologies often use types in order to tell a story.  (You’ll have to read the story to find out what part of the mythology is presented, though).

Themes

I won’t write much about themes, because I feel that would give away much of the discovery in Kabu-Kabu for the reader.  Colonization, surely, jumps out first.  Whether purely speculative fiction with no anchor in a specific time period, a story that draws from the folklore of Nigeria, or near/far -future fantasy, all stories deal in some way with colonization.  Sometimes with stark, chilling effect.

Okorafor has a way of making even the “bad” characters sympathetic to the reader.  Some might see this as softening the blow, tempering the reality of colonization’s effects on the colonized.  But, spoiler alert, even the stories with seemingly happy endings can leave the reader feeling cold, lost, bleak.  Intentionally so.  Because the stories and themes in Kabu-Kabu, beautifully written as they may be, reveal a bleak, dirty heritage for much of the world, and the effects of that heritage on later generations of those forced to endure.

Prose

Throughout Kabu-Kabu I struggled with the short-story aspect of the book. Partly that’s a failing of my own.  Partly is has to do with Okorafor’s writing style itself.  It can be sparse at times, with little detail or backstory besides what the characters themselves think or remember.  She does not do the work for you.  Nevertheless her stories are rich, her descriptions and scenes are lush.  Hemingway-esque, in her word choice, she also treats all her characters with dignity, though in a different way than the patriarchal, male-chauvanist style Hemingway perfected.  Despite the short-story format, she weaves interlocking themes throughout her stories, allowing the reader to find more continuity in Kabu-Kabu than one would at first suspect.  

Other Positives

I know what you’ll say–only positives, no negatives?  The thing is, unless  story is legitimately poorly written, or features blatant misogyny, sexism, racism, or other -isms I’m tired of reading, I’m  probably not going do a whole lot of talking about negative things.  I want to celebrate the women and the works I read for this blog.  Okorafor is an established author.  I’d rather talk about how she does things, rather than be nitpicky about what she does.

Anyway.

Tension.  There occasionally seems to be a bit of awkwardness in the prose, however not having read any of her novels, I can’t say whether this is symptomatic of her writing style overall or just the short story format.  Sometimes having to step back and re-read a passage can make you think more, and sometimes it takes you out of the story.  Honestly, considering the subject matter, her habit of bringing in the strange and unbelievable, I wouldn’t say it in any way detracts from the stories.  At times I even just assumed it was my own lack of experience with dialect that caused trouble for me.

In fact, the perceived oddities of the prose often adds to the tension–thematic, between characters, between characters and their worlds–that already exists in the stories.  I very much enjoyed the tension in her stories–the feeling of not knowing what to expect, how to react, what the characters were going to do, what was going to happen next, whether or not the feelings you have or that the characters are expressing will be vindicated by the end of the story–and found it tended to express more overarching themes, in addition to the more minute subjects of each story taken singly.  As I said, Okorafor has a way of leaving things unsaid in just the right way, but still getting across a lot of information.

Why You Should Read

You will be taken out of your comfort zone, and encounter stories that deal with a variety of themes, often negative, but in a positive way.  You’ll begin to see the world from a different perspective.

Okorafor has written that the stories she creates are the stories she wanted to read as a child.  She creates characters that look like her, that have gone through the same experiences she has.  If for no other reason, you should read Kabu-Kabu, and any of her work, because we need more authors, more stories like hers.  We need to keep seeing different characters, different perspectives, than the ones “so-called mainstream” scifi/fantasy was raised on.  Because that mainstream is just a small fraction of the whole world, and there are so many stories out there.

Like this review?  Stay tuned for a more in-depth, spoilery essay about Kabu-Kabu, complete with citations and criticism!