Saturday, February 23, 2013

Nothing like home: A review of Oz Reimagined

When I received the anthology Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond (John Joseph Adams and David Cohen; 47North; Feb. 2013) as a perk from Klout, I was of two minds. One was delighted to be getting a book of speculative short fiction early in its publication cycle, before it had been reviewed and discussed to death. The other was leary of the thread that connected all of the stories together.

So let me be upfront about this: I have no love for Oz.

The only affection I can conjure for this particularly American series has to do with my mother and her delight in the movie version.

We didn’t go to the movies much when I was growing up in Guatemala. I remember seeing a few of Rafael Lanuza’s Lucha Libre films with Superzan (Guatemala’s best known masked wrestler) at a movie theater in Zone 11 with my grandmother. I remember seeing a very soapy period drama from either Spain or South America, starring Fernando Allende, with my classmates in Zone 1. And I remember seeing a handful of first-run movies (often a year or so after they opened in the U.S.) and old Hollywood “classics” at a Zone 10 movie theater with my family.

My mother (who one of Mexico’s biggest movie stars had tried to convince to join the company of Churubusco film actors when she was still in high school) absolutely LOVED movies, and my first name should give you the clue that her favorites were golden-age, big studio Hollywood productions.

So I saw The Wizard of Oz for the first time in a movie theater, subtitled in Spanish, with my mother whispering in my ear about how magical the transition from black-and-white to color had been for her when she first saw it. I can’t remember if she imparted that information to me in English or in Spanish, but I do recall her eyes sparkling and her voice getting pitchy with the excitement of sharing something she loved.

You understand, then, that I really wanted to like it.

But I didn’t.

Years later, after I had moved to the U.S. and after hearing the unadulterated fondness in my friends‘ voices as they spoke of it, I tried watching the movie again. And then again when my daughter was little.

A la tercera, la vencida, as we say in Spanish. Which means not that the third time is a charm but that it seals the failure. By the time my daughter was given copies of several Oz books for her birthday by some grown-up aficionado of the series, I wasn’t tempted to crack them open to see if I’d prefer the literary version.

Adams and Cohen asked the writers of Oz Reimagined to base their stories on the literary Oz, so book-only characters such as patchwork girl Scraps and pumpkin-headed Jack appear in a number of these stories, as do several Ozmas. But, of course, the four characters central to the movie — Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion — are the most frequently recurring protagonists in the stories of the anthology.

And therein resides one of the editors’ challenges. I don’t think Adams and Cohen were entirely successful in meeting it with their selection of stories for the anthology, despite the undeniable skill of everyone involved. I was exhausted by the number of reiterations of Dorothy (Dot, Theodora, etc.) and only occasionally surprised by a new main character.

Beyond shared protagonists, there is a sameness of tone in many of these stories and, despite the variation in specific narrative, a sameness in writers’ the approach to this preexisting universe. Oz is a quintessentially American mythos, and most of the stories in Oz Reimagined present an unrelentingly Anglo set of motivations and narrative choices (more about this later). The notable exception is Ken Liu’s “The Veiled Shanghai,” and accordingly, it is one of the three stories I think stand beyond the concept of the anthology.

Liu places Dorothy and her cohorts in 1919 Shanghai and casts their adventures as a stream of actions and events in a fictionalized moment of the historical May Fourth Movement. This gives it a narrative richness that none of the other stories attains. Moreover, Liu gives us a bit of complexity in his iterations of Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Wizard — all of them have backstories and rationales that resonate far beyond the simplistic original. There is satisfaction to be had in the steampunkish elements of the unveiled Shanghai, and in the intelligence of the points of overlap between the two Shanghais. Liu’s isn’t the only story in the anthology that plays with the overlap of Oz and mundane world. Orson Scott Card’s “Off to see the Emperor” is another, but unlike Card, Liu honors the doubled vision instead of having his character grow up and out of magic. This is the first Liu story I’ve read, and if it is representative of his work, I can well understand why his stories are on all the award ballots.

Another story that holds up well under scrutiny is the last one in the anthology, “The Cobbler of Oz” by Jonathan Maberry. It is a story set fully in the fantastical Oz side of the universe though, refreshingly, without any of the ubiquitous main characters. The charm of Maberry’s story comes from his central protagonist, a young winged monkey girl who cannot fly. Maberry breaks no ground with this story, but gives us three immensely appealing characters (the cobbler, the monkey girl and the last silver dragon) with enough hints of backstory for each to mitigate the familiarity of the quest narrative.

“City So Bright” by Dale Bailey also imagines the lives of those at the margins of the original Oz. His main character is a munchkin worker charged with cleaning and polishing the high walls of Emerald City. Bailey doesn’t overlap Oz and mundane world as Liu does, but stratifies Oz in terribly mundane-world ways (as does Seanan McGuire in her “Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust”). So the working folk of Oz live under the showcase city, leading hardscrabble lives in service to the city and its faceless power brokers. It is Occupy Oz (though without the numbers). Bailey’s greatest success, to my mind, is that his characters would be at home in a Clifford Odets play (or any of the pieces that came from America’s brief literary flirtation with poetry-infused "everyman" social realism) even while they are munchkins and winkies and maimed winged monkeys.

The anthology is filled with big names of speculative fiction: Card, McGuire, Tad Williams, Theodora Goss, Jane Yolen and Rachel Swirsky, among others. Many of them are writers whose work I admire and I was willing to believe their considerable skills were enough to break through the antipathy I have for the Oz universe.

Unfortunately it proved not to be entirely true.

I love Yolen’s skill in building character, but the running away to join the circus narrative of “Blown Away” is almost as narrowly American as Oz itself. Yolen’s choice in storytelling voice made it impossible for me to connect with the story. Worse, her depiction of the proscribed lives of the women in her narrative is so slight that it makes the ultimate choice to run away terribly unconvincing. It isn't that easy, I kept thinking. Goss’s story “The Lost Girls of Oz” also suffered from an unconvincing change of heart in its main character, and from a weightless depiction of the decision to take up arms.

I’m fond of Williams “Otherland” setting, but his “The Boy Detective of Oz” in the anthology felt like a piece on its way to another. You know, the patch of yellow brick interstate you don't remember when you've actually arrived at your destination. Swirsky’s “Beyond the Naked Eye” had an amusing reality show framing device, but the unfolding and resolution was so predictable I came away feeling cheated. McGuire’s story is a lively urban fantasy, but its most thought provoking component turns out to be its city planning.

One of the writers, Robin Wasserman in her “One Flew Over the Rainbow,” wasn’t satisfied with mining just one movie-and-book legend, and so placed the familiar Oz gang in Nurse Ratched and Ken Kesey territory. The characterization was lovely in this story, and in the end, affecting. But the deftness of its manipulation annoys, and you can feel the writer smirking about how smartly done it all is.

As a newspaper editor, I long ago devised a way to rank and prioritize the stories in each edition we put together. As I understand it from fiction editor friends, there is a quite specific art to the ranking and prioritizing of stories in an anthology. I must be an anthology editor’s bane because I tend to read the stories of writers I like first, regardless of where they’ve been placed in the anthology. But in this case I did not. I read the stories in the order the editors planned, and I have to say, I think Adams and Cohen made some odd choices.

The opening story, “The Great Zeppelin Heist of Oz” by Rae Carson and C.C. Finlay, is neither the strongest nor written by the most famous (either of which would have been my newspaper editor's gambit). Two of the best pieces are hidden in the middle of the book, and I must confess I almost didn't make it that far. The only placement decision I can agree with wholeheartedly is closing with Maberry’s story. It is an accomplished and sweet piece, and I came away feeling much kinder toward the anthology than I would have, say, if they had closed it with Card's or Wasserman's piece.

More distressing than the placement however is the lack of diversity. I don’t know all of the writers included so I don’t know if they are mostly Anglo, but I’d be willing to bet so. Because there are no non-Anglo characters in evidence (at least none that I can remember as I write this blog post) except for Liu’s. None of the other stories engage with race or ethnicity in any way (and judging by the movie, if not by the books, there are some obvious race and ethnicity issues that need addressing in Baum’s universe).

Since it’s likely, judging from the level of contributors, that this was an invitation-only anthology, I wonder if the lack of diversity reflects the lack of appeal of the source material to writers of color, or if it indicates an editorial lack of imagination.

They might have taken some editorial flak, but inviting some non-U.S. SFF writers to contribute would have provided a fascinating counterpoint to the original Oz’s Monroe Doctrine-ish worldview, and would have better engaged readers like me — with my mixed bag of heritages and experiences. But that's a lot to expect. Still, at the very least, the editors should have secured the work of some U.S.-born writers of color, who — provided the Oz material was palatable or redeemable to them — would have added a very distinct set of voices and sensibilities to this anthology. It is Liu’s talent that makes his piece stand head and shoulders above the rest in this book, but it is also the fact that it is so absolutely distinct from the others.

Really, try this: Put Goss’s name on Yolen’s story, and vice versa. Or, swap the names on Card’s story and Simon Green’s “Dorothy Dreams.” The changes are credible because the worldviews each set of stories and/or writers present are so fundamentally similar. But try doing that with Liu’s story and any other story in the anthology ....

Ultimately, what this anthology did best for me was make me realize just how tired I am of American books that don’t care if they speak to, or about, me and mine. Just to be clear: the realization isn’t about the Oz book released way back in 1900, but about the one released this month.

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