The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016
by Kristin King
I did not expect 2016 to be the year fascism would be at the top of my mind, but now that it is, here are a few picks to give me courage or hope, or simply to help me get through the day.
Everfair By Nisi Shawl (Tor)
This is a wonderful book. It is steampunk historical fiction, and it has romance, drama, espionage, excitement, danger, and truly complicated interpersonal relationships. I don’t know how to explain why I like it so much. It’s truly meaty and entertaining at the same time.
First the deep stuff. Shawl chose a historical period that is both truly horrific and virtually unknown in your typical Western history book: the regime of King Leopold II, horrific tyrant of the Congo Free State. The king extracted rubber from the land by enslaving, torturing, and murdering about half the populace--millions of people. (My own history textbook, which I kept because of its apparent completeness, simply says that “his determination to make it commercially profitable led him to unconscionable extremes” and that he “virtually enslaved” the people.)
This historical truth is painful to see. But we can’t afford to look away that, not now, not when tragedies like Aleppo are happening, and not when the U.S. has elected a (neo?)fascist. But if we do look, how can we maintain hope? Somewhere in the magic of Everfair, Shawl offers an answer. She shows us the horrors, but even more vividly, the resistance. The world worth fighting for.
How does she manage it? For one, she doesn’t dump us straight into the horrific story of the Congo Free State. She starts us off gently with a familiar coming of age story. It began with Lisette Toutournier, a young woman enjoying that sure freedom of her bicycle. She addresses the bicycle as a lover, promising one day to “venture out and see for ourselves what it is the world holds for us.”
For another thing, by the time we get to the actual details of the Congo Free State, we’re seeing the world through the lens of a black man who fought in the Civil War and two others: Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson. He’s ready for one more fight, and he has a plan. Before you know it, an epic journey has begun. A disparate group of people join together to create a utopian community, complete with steam bicycles, steam engines, and hot air balloons, all to defeat Leopold II.
I have rarely been so thoroughly transported to another land, to another way of thinking. Actually, to a multiplicity of viewpoints. And as the book proceeds, we realize that the utopian view of the Europeans was limited by their ignorance. One of my favorite moments takes place about halfway through the book, when Josina, queen and favorite wife to King Mwenda, ponders the divisions that have come up. She thinks, “Now it was understood that other viewpoints existed…” We would all do well to bear that in mind.
I can’t end this review without a nod to the cats. A group of cats, part of an espionage network. It would be a spoiler to say more.
All in all, the book is a marvel.
Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown (NAL)
When the Jewish “modern girl” in 1935 New York gets accidentally knocked up, what’s she going to do? Especially since her 42-year-old mother is in the same situation. I feel like I got plopped down right in their little apartment and met all their friends and relatives. Everything about mothering felt genuine to me, too–all the ambivalence, the love, and the hard work. Overall, a remarkable read, fun without being candy, deep and thoughtful–treating some serious issues–without being a downer. I want more.
Brown gave a reading of this book along with some context of why the book was written. She had heard a family story about a grandmother who had gotten an abortion and was amazed. People had abortions back then? Indeed they did. I had a great-grandmother who went to a hospital to have a “uterine tumor” removed. Young women in 1930s New York often had procedures to “restore their menses.”
After hearing Brown speak, I realized that our current view of abortion is highly colored by our technology and culture. If you think about it, back then, a woman wouldn’t know she was pregnant until the quickening, that is, the baby kicking. Today’s concept of a “heartbeat bill” would have seemed absurd. Also different: a young woman’s baby was seen as the responsibility of her parents and older siblings, at a time one more mouth to feed might mean somebody else couldn’t go to college. In that context, abortion wasn’t seen as the young woman’s “choice.”
I hope Brown will write an essay about her research, because it’s fascinating and quite timely.
In the meantime, the novel, which defies easy moralizing, is well worth the read.
Unpronounceable by Susan diRende (Aqueduct Press)
This is an alien encounter story unlike any I have ever seen. Suppose an alien civilization initiates first concept but rejects all of Earth’s ambassadors because they appear to be insane. And also its artists, philosophers, and other important people. At their wits’ end, the powers that be choose a most unlikely candidate. In their opinion, anybody who can’t speak frankly about their own bodies has more or less failed the sentience test.
This book is hilarious, but for me the best treat was hearing it read out loud, by diRende herself, in a Jersey accent. If she ever puts out an audiobook, snap it up.
Kino’s Journey, anime
“Whenever people see birds flying through the sky, it's said that they get the urge to go on a journey.” - Kino
There were no new Doctor Who episodes this year, and for me, that’s a tragedy. Fortunately, I came across a list of anime for people who are suffering withdrawals. This anime has a simple premise. Kino and their motorcycle, Hermes, are on a journey. Kino stays only three nights in any place and then moves on. Hermes provides the speed, and Kino, the balance. Each episode begins and ends with an ambiguous exchange between the two -- a philosophical reflection on the action that is about to take place, not to be understood until the episode is over.
All of the episodes are sad, or subtly horrific, and a few are postapocalyptic. But the overall effect for me is beauty and inspiration. It’s as Kino says: “The world is not beautiful: And that, in a way, lends it a sort of beauty.”
Somehow it makes you want to go on a journey. . .
Colored Peoples Time Machine, album by Gabriel Teodros
I first came across Gabriel Teodros in the collection Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (AK Press), and again at an event honoring Octavia Butler, and again at a speaking event at Shoreline Community College. He always does some rap and some talking, and he always has deep wisdom to share for social movements--based on the reality of the world, not the theory. Here’s a youtube video with a taste of his music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI
I could listen to his voice forever, just his voice, but then there’s the music and the poetry and the passion and the peace in the midst of violence. All combined, there’s nothing else like it in the world.
His website is here: http://www.gabrielteodros.com/
Kristin King (http://kristinking.wordpress.com) is a writer, parent, and activist who lives in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Calyx, The Pushcart Prize XXII (1998), and other places. Two of her stories appeared in an Aqueduct Press anthology, Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries Lost, Suppressed, or Misplaced in Time. A selection of her short fiction has been collected in Misfits from the Beehive State.