historical fiction · review · science fiction

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson is the kind book I pick up just because of the cover. After all, how can one resist a cover that has a woman with octopus tentacles on it? Throw in time travel and I’m sold. In this novella, Minh, an ecological restorer is offered a job she can’t refuse. Her usual gig is to monitor rivers and snowpack to help sustain water in the newly habitable surface communes on a ruined earth. But her nemesis of a corporation offers to pay her to travel back in time to 2024 BCE to map the total ecosystem of the Tigris and the Euphrates so that, perhaps, they might be recreated. 

Minh is a delightfully prickly woman of the future. She is a part of the plague baby generation, a generation that was decimated by a variety of epidemics that ripped through the subterranean cities that humans retreated to in the face of ecological disasters. The plague babies (some of whom are genetically or physically modified to survive on the surface) struck out for the blighted surface to try and re-create surface life. They’ve survived in a few places, but most of these colonies are struggling because the banks that finance everything aren’t seeing a big enough return on their investment. It’s no wonder that Minh is bitter. 

It’s a surprise to her friends that she’s even willing to work with one of the biggest of the corporations making a go of it on the surface. Years ago, they were the ones who pulled the plug on Minh’s big project to restore the Colorado River. Minh somehow sees her way to bidding for this company’s plan to use time travel to recreate the Tigris and Euphrates ecosystem. As things usually do in fiction, things start to go awry as soon as Minh and her landing party arrive in 2024 BCE. There are hints at the beginnings of each chapter about just how wrong things can get when the group disturbs the heavily armed people who are already living there. 

This novella completely hooked me. I loved the characters and the advanced science that they employ. Seeing cultures from opposite ends of history in conflict is wonderfully original and entertaining. The best part, I think, is the ending. Something happens that has huge implications about what it means to be able to time travel. The ending completely changed how I saw the book. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is a great adventure story.

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alternate history · literary fiction · review · science fiction

Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich

34217599Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich, is part of a dialogue in fiction that goes back as far as The Handmaid’s TaleIn this particular type of women’s dystopia, something happens that drastically reduces fertility. The fertility crisis invariably results in women who can conceive having their freedoms curtailed so that the species can continue. In Future Home of the Living God, the catalyst is that evolution suddenly reverses. Plants and animals that have been domesticated for thousands of years suddenly revert to their original, wild state. We’re never told exactly what happens to the fetuses of pregnant women, but it’s speculated that their children will be more like earlier hominid species. We watch this crisis through the eyes of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the adopted daughter of liberal parents, who may be one of the last women to bear a Homo sapiens child.

Cedar is pregnant by the time the book opens, though only a few months along. Her pregnancy spurs her to seek out her birth mother, an Ojibwe woman who lives on a reservation north of Minneapolis. Cedar’s quest gives us plenty of questions about motherhood. How can mothers give up their children? What do children owe their parents? What do parents owe their children? The novel does not shame Cedar’s birth mother for giving her up. Instead, I got the sense that this women could not adequately care for Cedar and that giving her up was the right decision, even though Cedar feels cut off from her Ojibwe heritage.

This beginning works in contrast to the rest of Future Home of the Living God. Cedar’s child is very much wanted. But with the fertility/evolution crisis, women in the United States have lost the right to not only to keep their children but also their physical freedom while they’re pregnant. Cedar is helped by her boyfriend (and the father of her child) to stay free in her home for a couple of months. Unfortunately, that boyfriend is captured and tortured into giving up her location. The rest of the novel contains a series of incarcerations and escapes. The ending of the novel broke my heart and made me incredibly angry.

Throughout the novel, Cedar thinks about or is reminded of her Catholic faith in ways that focus on the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. These reminders pair with Cedar’s story to show us just how little autonomy pregnant women and mothers have sometimes. Pregnant women go through harrowing deliveries after enduring advice (welcome and unwelcome), only to be judged by society about how they chose to raise their children. Over and over, this book reminded me of how many people think they know better than a pregnant woman or a mother. Mothers are not infallible, but they shouldn’t be imprisoned in hospitals, subjected to medical tests or procedures like the “husband’s stitch” without consent, and not told about what’s happening with their bodies and their children. Also, women should be able to freely chose whether or not they will give up their children or to terminate their pregnancies. This book reinforced my belief that women do not give up their right to bodily autonomy because they get pregnant or can get pregnant.

The premise of Future Home of the Living God is one of my personal flash points, but readers should know that this book is extremely well written. The way that Catholicism flows through the book is deftly done and Cedar’s character is particularly well drawn. I was constantly surprised at the twists in this book, which came when I least expected them. Erdrich has a gift for raising our consciousness about bodily autonomy and reproductive justice in a way that makes us look at the issues from the perspective of an individual, rather than as big, untackleable social issues. It’s not all meant to make us want to storm the barricades—though I think that it would be an outstanding read for book groups because of its premise. Future Home of the Living God is an affective and very effective book that I hope is read as widely as it deserves.

literary fiction · review · science fiction

How to Be Safe, by Tom McAllister

35167727Tom McAllister’s How to Be Safe tackles one of the biggest flash points in American politics: mass shootings and our repeated failure to stop them. This novel looks at a mass shooting through the viewpoint of a character who is caught up in the aftermath, even though she had nothing to do with the crime. Anna Crawford shows us how paralyzing fear can be and how helpless we feel to keep ourselves safe. The science fiction notes heighten the book’s angry commentary on the ridiculous ways that politicians come up with to “solve” the problem without actually tacking on America’s gun culture and industry.

The mass shooting occurs in the book’s prologue. A young teenaged boy, wracked with loneliness and twisted by the belief that killing a bunch of his classmates (and then himself) will somehow achieve something, eats a slice of pizza before going to the school. Paragraphs describing how his victims die are interspersed with the boy’s thoughts. After the prologue, we switch to Anna Crawford’s perspective for the rest of the book. Anna was a teacher at the school in this small Pennsylvania town before being suspended for posting online about how much she hates working there. The social media posts lead the police and FBI to her house (which they destroy looking for evidence), thinking she might have had something to do with the mass shooting. Even though she is quickly exonerated, Anna is shattered.

Unlike the rest of the town, Anna’s life has imploded in a different way. While the rest of the townspeople try to cope with having lost so many people in a terrible crime, Anna has her sense of safety ripped away by the way the police and everyone else viciously turn on her. The rest of the town “copes” with the shooting in the way a lot of other towns have unfortunately learned to deal. There are a lot of speeches. There is a memorial that everyone fights over. Gun sales go up. Anna retreats into her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, even sleeping in a couch fort for a long time. She tries religion, but the church she chooses is actually a cult. No one listens to her, but they are very willing to give her advice about how to get better. Anna’s depression and paranoia gave me a stark sense of her dislocation from the rest of her world.

How to Be Safe is not the angriest book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly in the top five. The parts of this book that don’t mourn the boy’s victims or focus on Anna’s fear of the world around her are an incendiary indictment of American gun culture. In spite of ample evidence that Americans need to give up their guns, politicians and gun rights activists vehemently argue that guns are the only thing that can “keep us safe.” Parts of this book made me angry as well (and I will absolutely vote for politicians who are pro-gun control), it mostly made me despair. Gun control and gun rights in America are a bitter topic because both sides are so adamantly opposed to each other’s point of view that it seems like we will never find a way to be safe from mass shootings.

review · science fiction

City of Ash and Red, by Hye-young Pyun

Trigger warnings for rape and violence to animals.

39331853The beginning of Hye-young Pyun’s novel, City of Ash and Red, (translated by Sora Kim-Russell), terrified me because it presents one of my worst fears. An unnamed man arrives in a foreign city to take up a job, only to end up without his phone, documents, most of his possessions, and eventually the apartment his new employer set up. He doesn’t speak the language well. All the phone numbers he might call were stored in his phone. He’s on his own. Meanwhile, an epidemic and a garbage strike are making conditions in the city district he’s fetched up in downright hellish.

At first, I felt a strong sympathy for our unnamed protagonist. He’s in desperate straights in the first chapters, especially as the epidemic gets worse and he is quarantined to his apartment. But then, I started to learn things about the protagonist that flipped my sympathy on its head. Throughout the first chapters, the protagonist alternately laments and puzzles about his broken marriage and how his wife left him for a man he doesn’t like. But when the protagonist does manage to call home after an arduous phone directory search, we learn that not only is his ex-wife’s dog brutally murdered in the protagonist’s apartment, so his his ex-wife.

The hits keep coming after that. The protagonist is visited by police officers and jumps out a window to escape, becoming homeless. While the protagonist digs through trash for edible food and scraps for a park bench to sleep on, more is revealed about his violent outbursts. The early chapters lead us to think that the protagonist is a put-upon, quietly suffering man. The rest of the book shows us the lie, complete with shocking examples of what happens when he loses his temper.

The wheel of Fortune lifts and drops the protagonist more than once in City of Ash and Red. So much so, that it’s hard to know what to make of the story. On the one hand, it would be easy to read the novel as a version of a man’s justifiable descent into hell for his deeds. On the other, the ending doesn’t make sense in that reading because the protagonist’s luck seems to be on the rise. City of Ash and Red left me feel angry for the way the protagonist repeatedly escapes justice. I suppose that’s the question this book presents for me. Is there an amount of suffering that could make amends? If not, what is a fitting punishment? Can suffering and deprivation even be considered a punishment if the sufferer thinks they’ve escaped justice?

Longtime readers of this blog will know that these are the kinds of questions that fascinate me in literature. It’s entirely possible that other readers will get something completely different from City of Ash and Red. Every reader, I think, will be unsettled by the strange city where the story takes place and the even more unsettling revelations about the protagonist. Kim-Russell, the translator, preserves the way Pyun withholds names and identifying details from us so that this city and this protagonist could be anywhere and anyone. Because this story could take place anywhere with any number of abusive characters standing in for the protagonist, the novel is just that much more chilling.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 November 2018.

literary fiction · review · science fiction

Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

37570595Reading Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s collection, Friday Black, was like sticking my finger in a light socket. The stories tackle so many hot-button issues—the murders of Black people by police officers and White people, abortion, neoliberalism, dangerously competitive consumerism—in such strong language that readers can’t hide from the truths they reveal about American society.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“The Finkelstein 5.” This story made me sit up and take notice. As the first story in the collection, “The Finkelstein 5” explores a possible response to the callous miscarriages of justice that allow White people to kill Black people with near impunity. The violence is dialed up to 11, to highlight the blatant racism that guides the process from seeing a Black person or group of Black people, to attacking the Black people, to trial, to acquittal. But this story adds a vengeful coda to the usual tale, in which Black people start killing White people while shouting the names of the Finkelstein 5, the five Black children murdered by a White man who was “frightened” and “trying to protect his children.”

“Zimmer Land.” In this story, Isaiah works at a twisted theme park that purports to help people pursue exploration of race and justice. What that means, no matter how Isaiah’s bosses dress it up in academic-sounding language, is that people of color are hired to be “murdered” by guests. The employees suit up in protective gear and blood squibs, where they are confronted over and over again by the White guests who pay to play out their fantasies of killing “terrorists” and “thugs.” Isaiah is asked over repeatedly why he still works there. The money is good, just good enough to stay invested in the system. Not far underneath the plot is a biting satire about how everyone plays into the violent status quo.

“Light Spitter.” I found this story the most puzzling of the collection. After one character murders another and kills himself, they become ghostly presences haunting the library where they died and the room of a boy who is contemplating becoming a mass murderer. Dierdra, the murder victim, will become an angel if she can do good deeds. Neither of them is sure why William, known as “Fuckton,” is there. He killed two people before he committed suicide. Both of them argue about how to help the potential mass murderer. Dierdra messes up at first with her gentle, do-gooder approach. In the end, murderer and victim have to work together to stop more deaths. The story tackles the question of how to stop mass murderers, but I’m not sure I can agree with its conclusions about how to do that. Also, it just seems cruel to trap Dierdra together with the boy who killed her.

“Lark Street.” While I was interested in the other stories in this collection, I did not like this story because of its treatment of abortion. The story raises a good point about the consequences of abortion, but I am staunchly pro-Choice. It’s a conflict of politics rather than the quality of the story.

For me, a White reader, reading these stories was like being invited to witness an experience of American and Black life that I only knew about academically or tangentially. Friday Black gave be a front-row seat to the profound, righteous fury felt by people of color for centuries. Even the stories set in the future reflects a deep frustration with the American status quo. Every story packs a emotional punch that angers, depresses, and illuminates. These stories feel like the shout that has been welling up for a long time and needs to be heard.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 23 October 2018.

review · science fiction

The Tiger Flu, by Larissa Lai

39070352Larissa Lai has created a very strange world in The Tiger Flu, a lightning fast eruption of a novel. In this future version of our earth, waves of plagues have killed off many men; Caspian tigers have been restored from extinction; famine is widespread; some women have been genetically engineered to parthogenetically reproduce or regrow parts of their bodies; metallic scales and drugs can create extraordinary, half-real hallucinations; climate change has completely changed the landscape, and more. To be honest, I didn’t always understand what was going on because a) it all happened so fast, b) there’s a lot of whatever it was, and c) it’s hard to tell what was happening in reality and what was happening in dreams or visions.

We follow two characters through this welter of ideas and settings. Kora Ko, a resident of Saltwater City, lives on the margins of the city geographically and financially. When her mother and uncle hit the end of their rope, they send Kora very much against her will to the Cordova Dancing School. The school teaches “dance” techniques that allow the girls who live there to scrape a living from the ruined countryside. She runs away every chance she gets to try and find her family again, but is almost always side-railed into what other people bully her into.

Meanwhile, Kirilow Groundsel ministers to her wife, who is called a starfish for her ability to regenerate lost limbs and organs. After a terrible crisis during which her wife and the village’s doubler (who births clone daughters) die and most of the rest of the inhabitants are kidnapped, Kirilow heads for Saltwater City on a rescue/revenge mission. Like Kora, Kirilow is waylaid time and again because she is bullied into doing something or is flat-out kidnapped by someone to get her to use her doctoring skills for the kidnapper’s benefit. Every side quest means that her revenge/rescue gets pushed further on the back burner.

There are so many other characters who pop into Kirilow and Kora’s stories and try to get the girls (they’re teenaged) to do things or just derail them for their own purposes. While we eventually learn these characters’ motivations, I never really understood why they acted the way they did. There’s a serious lack of explaining in The Tiger Flu. Almost every fact Kirilow, Kora, and I as a reader learned is gleaned from context. To be honest, I was bewildered most of the time—and occasionally irritated by the stubbornness of all the characters and belligerent dialogue. There’s a lot of characters shouting “No!” at each other in strange settings. Readers who can roll along with it will be rewarded by some answers and some resolution at the end. For me, though, the exotic science fictional setting and technologies were not enough to make up for the things that annoyed or confused me.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.

literary fiction · review · science fiction

Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice

35914753These days, most of us live lives almost completely divorced from the hard, unpredictable work of keeping ourselves warm and fed. Most of us get our food from grocery stores and restaurants. We flip a switch to turn on the lights or fiddle with a knob to turn on the heat or the cool to adjust the temperature of our living spaces. But on the Canadian reservation where Evan Whitesky lives, in Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, he and his relatives and band members live closer to the land. And when the power inexplicably goes out—seemingly forever—life on the Anishinaabe reserve is about to get even closer to the bone.

When we meet him, Evan has just shot a moose for his family. His worry about keeping everyone fed for the winter is assuaged, at least for the moment. Getting the body back home is a bit of a struggle, but he manages. The Whitesky family has food. They’ve good firewood. They’re in good shape. He’s still a little anxious about his brother, but he’s mostly content. Within 24 hours, however, the power from the nearby dam goes out. Evan gets a little more worried. Still, they have a generator for emergencies and food and diesel trucks are schedule to arrive in about a week.

At first there’s no need to panic or even ration—until two young members of the band arrive on snowmobiles after fleeing the town where they were going to college. The power went out there, too, and no one can get in touch with the government in Toronto. Things go quickly to hell and the two men barely manage to escape. After they turn up on the reserve, an unsettling white man turns up and asks for a place among the Anishinaabe. Justin Scott says he’ll be an asset to the band, but he doesn’t feel right to Evan. Before long, Scott becomes as much of a problem for Evan and the rest of the band as hunger and cold do.

Moon of the Crusted Snow is a brief tale of survival against a terrifying opportunist and against the elements that touches on cultural reclamation, self-determination, language, and faith. These touches elevate the book from simple dystopia to an opportunity for the Anishinaabe at this reserve to, perhaps, return to their ancestral way of life. Do we cheer? Do we lament the terrible price that was paid? The open ending of Moon of the Crusted Snow has no answers for us. Instead, it leaves us with some very interesting questions to think about long after we finish the last page.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.