Word of the Worlds May 2017

Collective Resistance in Scifi

Happy belated May Day! Here at the Oakland store we celebrated by taking the day off in honor of workers worldwide, past, present, and of course, future.

As I reflected on the holiday, I began to wonder what its impact has been on literature, specifically scifi and fantasy. So much of the genre celebrates heroes: individuals attempting to "save the day," to rescue loved ones in distress, or simply to survive. I wanted to explore works which emphasize collective struggle, stories which show the power of people working together to overcome oppressive structures.

The truth is, society and social relations are never shifted by individuals. They require countless people, and groups of people, to ask a question which is central to speculative fiction: What if? And not only to ask or imagine, but to live in such a way that those dreams are made manifest, concretely challenging and dismantling power. Think of the Oakland Commune, of  #BlackLivesMatter, of the water protectors at Standing Rock.

Below I've put together a short list of books I feel are relevant to this discussion. These are wonderful writers with vivid imaginations, who don't accept that technology or some other outside force will be enough to create a more beautiful world. They show us possibilities, lines of flight which affirm the strength we collectively hold. I can't imagine a more precious May Day gift! --David C.

by Nisi Shawl

What if a group of African-American missionaries, English socialists, and native Congolese banded together to create a near-topia in the heart of a land being ravaged by King Leopold and the Belgians? What if they developed steam technology at the same time? This ambitious novel explores an alternate history and pulls no punches in the process. Don't expect a dreamy utopia; Shawl is intimately familiar with the conflicts which naturally arise when people with varying degrees of privilege and differing motivations try to work together.


Four Ways to Forgiveness
by Ursula K Le Guin

Revolutions are messy, unfinished things, even when all the fighting stops. Le Guin offers us four novellas which explore the reverberations and after-shocks of such a struggle. When an uprising is based around a single, unifying identity how are the disparate perspectives within that larger umbrella valued? Does a class-based revolution empower women? What happens when it doesn't? Is it possible to forgive a corrupt, one-time hero to the cause? To care for them? As she does so well, Le Guin takes large concepts and weaves them delicately, intricately, through the individuals of her worlds, sharing with us their power and their pain.

*Unfortunately this collection has gone out of print but lucky for us the stories have been collected in two volumes, The Unreal and the Real andThe Found and the Lost. Besides these wonderful gems, the collections are both fabulous and have many of Le Guin's other beautiful stories. InThe Found and the Lost you can find the novellas Forgiveness Day, A Man of the People, and A Woman's Liberation.  In the Unreal and the Real is Betrayals. Together these four stories form what was originally published as Four Ways to Forgiveness. They can be read in any order. 


The Last Days of New Paris
by China Mieville

What if Surrealist resistance fighters in World War II Paris set off a bomb that brought their imaginings to life? What if this led to a stalemate, and anti-fascists found themselves continuing the fight well into the 1950s? In New Paris dreams and nightmares alike stalk the streets, bullets bend in mid-flight and all the beautiful terror of the unconscious is made real. While a larger resistance is only mentioned and alluded to, Mieville's novella accepts and assumes that where there are Nazis, there will always be a fight. 


Mythmakers and Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction 
edited by Margaret Killjoy

This is a fabulous collection of interviews conducted by Margaret Killjoy (whose newest novel The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is due out this summer) with a variety of authors. Many write scifi/fantasy and a few don't, but they are all intriguing discussions about how politics and social relations inform and influence a writer's work. Includes an introduction by Kim Stanley Robinson.



The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day 
by Peter Linebaugh

If you want to know more about May Day and why it is such an important, special day, this is a lovely book just for you!





Book Reviews
By Jeff Vandermeer
Jeff Vandermeer has been hard at work since the early 2000s, and it has been a real pleasure to watch the master of the New Weird get better and better. Since the beginning, he has demonstrated a particular obsession with worlds overrun with fungal and vegetable hybrids, strange mutants of human and animal and plant. His 2014 Southern Reach trilogy was a masterwork of eco-scifi, unsettling and bizarre, but magical too, and beautiful in a strange, alien way. The Southern Reach was about boundaries and their blurring; the Other was literally in another place.

In Borne however, the Other is all that remains, and it doesn’t seem too much a stretch to imagine this world as the same as the Southern Reach’s, if further down the timeline of catastrophe. Society is all but gone and humans live as scavengers in a world we broke and blighted. The world is not dead though. Our biotech creations roam free and life exists now predominantly in other forms: mutant children marauders; golden bears of astonishing power, speed, and ferocity; the deific Mord, a flying bear as big as a city block; and Borne, himself (her? it?) who is in an enigma even in a world filled with the impossible. What humans are left have adapted as humans inevitably must, working with and using the remaining bits of biotech they can scrounge up or homebrew.
But if you come to Borne for the weird--for the flying bear, for the inscrutable shapeshifting marvel, for the rampant biotech--what you stay for, at the risk of sounding cliche, is the human element. Rachel, the narrator, has an intense parental bond with Borne, whose childlike curiosity sometimes provides welcome comic relief, sometimes touching moments of insight. It’s this bond that gives the story weight. Borne may be a wildly imagined tale of post-apocalyptic survival, but its beating heart is the relationship between human and non-human, and between parent and children. --Chris P.
New York 2140
By Kim Stanley Robinson
New York, 2140. The city has been flooded by the second great pulse of rising sea levels. Is New York abandoned? Of course not. A new city rises from the watery rubble, hailed as the Super Venice. Robinson creates a breathtaking vision of New York in 2140 filled with a mysterious submerged underground, a gritty group of squatters occupying half sunk buildings that could not be restored and, you guessed it, crime and fortune in the high stakes real estate game that makes up the volatile inter-tidal zone. --Terry S.
The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
In the last few months Atwood's classic dystopian novel has found itself, once again, topping many bestseller lists. Part of this renewed interest is due to Hulu's adaptation and the legions of readers who prefer to experience the book before the show. But of course, this is only a partial explanation, especially considering the other book that is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. As the beginning and ending of each day's news-cycle bring fresh horrors to our attention, it seems that many readers are looking for...something within the pages of speculative fiction. Answers perhaps, or maybe warnings about what seems likely if we don't get this train off its tracks.
When The Handmaid's Tale was written (1985) the U.S. had another bad actor as its president, and women's rights and lives were being threatened by misogyny in the guise of religious fundamentalism. Atwood imagines a world where these bigots have had a coup of sorts, upending (or perhaps extending) the social and political order as we know it and remaking the world in the nightmare image of their sickest fantasies.

This story is not for everyone and should come with a bold Content Warning. The violence and degradation are vividly described and, unfortunately, barely extensions of what the Deciders in this country desire.
The Handmaid's Tale is not just a warning bell. It is a call to action to, on the one hand, actively resist a culture which encourages violence against women, and on the other to educate our youth in order to prevent its ongoing normalization. Fiction is at its best when it not only sparks our imaginations but impacts our actions and what better tribute to Atwood's genius could there be? --David C.