Saturday, June 29, 2013

The trajectory of women and stars: A review of The Other Half of the Sky

As women age, we get fiercer.

This is true of your clear-eyed, soft-bodied grandmother as it is of the woman of indeterminate age in front of you in the complaint line — or picket line — loudly expressing her indignation.

We wear our experiences on our faces and accumulate our knowing in our bones.

We understand this even as the societal image-making machinery sells us images of young women who are little more than enfleshed desire, walking cliche and narrative accessory. We understand this even as that same machine feeds us images of older women with faces ironed out by cosmetic surgery and bowed by their transition from actor to cameo.

Athena Andreadis is a fierce woman.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the introduction to her science fiction anthology, The Other Half of the Sky (Candlemark & Gleam, April 2013). I imagine that for the reader who picks up the book without knowing in advance that Andreadis is a formidable intellect who juggles the languages of science and myth with equal zeal and dexterity, the introduction may come as a bit of a shock.

The introduction to the anthology is a ripping away of the blinkers donned by a genre that has been billed as having a vision as expansive as the universe. Expansive for whom, Andreadis asks, and in which universe? Not us, not ours — unless we are men, and white, and satisfied with the proscribed roles and trajectories assigned to women in the image-making machines of the genre.

The introduction is partisan.

In case you’ve decided to read this as a negative, let me clarify. I’m tempted to see Andreadis as a kind of Anna Magnani in Rome Open City or Maribel Verdú in Pan’s Labyrinth — someone drawn into resistance by the injustice done to a city, a people, a genre she loves — but such an analogy would ignore that Andreadis isn’t drawn into resistance, she leads it. She fights those who repress, and disdains those who collude.

But where you really see Andreadis’ mettle isn’t in the fierce introduction but in the even fiercer choice of collecting (or cajoling) short stories in open rebellion with the image-making machinery of Sci Fi. Some of these stories succeed better than others, but all of them have at their heart the radical notion that we’ll define our own roles and map our own trajectories among the stars.

The anthology opens with the story Finders by Melissa Scott. It is an interesting choice. The story revolves around a salvage crew, a leader beset by a debilitating condition at the point of transitioning from chronic to terminal, and a salvage score that is both ambush and salvation. It is an easy story to read — just the right length and tone — and we’re familiar enough with interstellar salvage crews from movies like Alien that we get both the emotional and societal shorthand and Scott’s new view. I suspect the story was chosen so the reader could revel in the quiet after the introduction’s storm. It’s an editorial gambit that might work better for others than for me, but I almost wish the anthology had opened with the thornier read, Exit, Interrupted by C.W. Johnson, which uses as a device doors — exits and entries — that need to be stolen to be opened against authority.

Aliette de Bodard’s The Waiting Stars and Ken Liu’s The Shape of Thought are two of my favorite stories in the anthology, and there’s no surprise in that. They are both tremendously accomplished writers, and they each explore — with nuance, subtlety and generosity — ideas of otherness, of interactions ruled by disparities of power and wildly divergent cultural worldviews. This is rich stuff, and I’m as addicted to it as I am to coffee and chocolate.

De Bodard’s story echoes with the history of First Nations’ children taken away from their families and forced to eschew their language, customs and cultural patrimony for a foreign understanding of salvation — though, in this case, not a religious salvation. Her sentient ships, repositories of memory and living connection to the suppressed community, are deftly drawn characters, and the reawakening is a beautifully drawn triumph. It is proof of de Bodard’s generosity as a writer that she allows readers invested in the primacy of romantic love a bittersweet moment even as she tweaks it.

Liu’s story is informed by both colonial history and anthropology. I have to admit I was tripped up a bit by his choice of non-gendered pronoun (“ze” conjures the sound of bad French accents performed by earnest community theater performers for me), but almost as soon as I noted this I was carried beyond it by the strength of his writing. The story of the child who breaches a walled enclave between the known community and the other isn’t unfamiliar, but Liu is a master at imbuing his stories with so many gorgeous small moments — irresistible little beauties really — that I found myself forgiving him the predictability of outcome.

It doesn’t much matter to me whether I know where the storyline is taking me if I like the way it’s taking me there. Vandana Singh’s Sailing the Antarsa is a perfect example. Singh has the most consciously gorgeous of all the writing styles foregrounded by the anthology, so much so that her language almost becomes a character and becomes driver in this story of isolated space travel. All of the stories Andreadis and her partner Kay Holt edited for anthology are longer than the norm for the anthologies I’ve read, but Singh’s is one of the ones I really wish they had cut a bit. Not even the exhilarating language could keep me from being exhausted — and a little glad — by the time it came to a close.

The other story that could have used some trimming was Christine Lucas’ Ouroboros. Again, a fine story — this one touching upon othering utilitarianism and the power of myth and ancestral memory — but there are long stretches that would have lost neither their music nor their narrative impetus had they been shorter.

I’m not going to write about every other story because, well, I’m lazy and it’s my blog.;) All of the stories are quite competent and the vast majority of them are enjoyable. There are a few that I wouldn't choose to reread. Cat Rambo’s Dagger and Mask hopped heads at last moment, and what was there — revelation and ship captain’s voice, both — felt flat and one-dimensional to me. Martha Wells’ Mimesis seemed an incident rather than a story, and I could never warm to Terry Boren’s unusual diction in This Alakie and the Death of Dima.

Liking and not liking are, of course, a function as much of how we read as what we read. Joan Slonczewski’s Landfall was subject to that distinction. Why? Well, I don’t know if Slonczewski is Latina, but the story has a Latina protagonist, and that made me read it hypercritically. It is one of the prices to be paid for being editor of a Latino-owned, Spanish-language newspaper — I’m always on the lookout for portrayals of Latin@s that feel real and lived. Kudos to her for including a variety of Latin@s in the story and for giving them individual quirks. Did they remind me of me or my family or my coworkers or friends? Nope. Did their Spanish have the rhythm and cadence of Cuban and Puerto Rican Spanish? Nope.

Having said that, kudos are owed because the Spanish in Slonczewski’s story is truly Spanish. There is one incredibly awkward sentence that I think is intentionally phrased that way, but over all, a win. On the other hand, the Spanish wasn’t always used organically and at certain moments the choice seemed more linguistic tourism than character driven. Also — more pointed at the editors than to the writer — I always find it odd when Spanish words are italicized when they occur in the speech or thinking of a Latin@ character. The only reason to italicize is because it is a foreign word — but to the character that Spanish word isn’t foreign. And if you do italicize a Latino character’s speech, I feel it only fair you use the Spanish punctuation, too. So ¡candela!

The anthology closes with the story Cathedral by Jack McDevitt which, if I’m remembering correctly, was panned in an early review of the anthology. This was not my favorite story — Matt’s love for Laura is foregrounded at odd moments and too frequently —but it is a solid and well-crafted story that I hung in with from beginning to end. It is also a brilliant editorial choice to close the anthology with it. The story concerns itself with the last mission of a NASA soon to be defunded and shuttered. The opportunity presents itself for the characters to make the space program relevant again. It only requires they deliberately break the rules.

And, of course, that is what the Other Half of the Sky does.

A final note that harks back to the beginning. I was disappointed to note that, for all its rule breaking, the Other Half of the Sky had precious few older women protagonists (Alexander Jablokov’s Bad Day at Boscobel is the only one that comes to mind). Since I know both Andreadis and Holt are conscious of, and vocal about, the ageism evidenced in most SFF, I have to believe it is a lack attributable to writers rather than editors of this anthology.

So to you, younger writers of SFF, I say: as rare and proscribed as the portrayals of older women are in mainstream movies, Hollywood's more proactive about showing us than you are. Got it? Pretty terrible.

You've been warned — the older we get, the fiercer we get about this (and everything we care about).

So do better, okay?


  1. Trill, the protagonist of "In Colors Everywhere," is an older woman. But perhaps disqualified from consideration as she's transgendered?

    1. Not disqualified in the least, I didn't remember her being older - the flaw of writing a review a while after reading some of the stories.

      I apologize for not mentioning her.


Comment on this post: