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Books reviewed in this month's LOCUS MAGAZINE


Book Selections for July 2000

Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, Sheree R. Thomas, ed.
(Warner Aspect 0-446-52583-9, $24.95, 14+427pp, hc, July 2000, cover by Franco Accornero)

Vanishing Acts, Ellen Datlow, ed.
(Tor 0-312-86962-2, $24.95, 380pp, hc, June 2000, cover by Cliff Nielsen)

Sheree R. Thomas’s "ground­breaking" anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, writes Gary K. Wolfe in the June Locus, sets out to represent a wide spectrum of African-American fantastic writing, with results that emphasize SF -- roughly two thirds of the book’s 28 stories, mostly by contemporary and younger writers. Among the highlights are numerous stories with musical themes by Jewelle Gomez, Leone Ross, Kalamu ya Salaam, and others; stories that reflect African-American identity, including two of the book’s earlier tales...

W.E.B. Du Bois’s tale is perhaps the most obvious of these, a competent variation on Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, describing a black man and white woman who are apparently the only survivors when the earth passes through the gases of a comet’s tail, and who slowly begin to view each other as fully human -- until everyone else wakes up from what turns out to be merely a comet-induced nap. More complex -- and funnier -- is the selection from George Schuyler’s 1931 novel Black No More, in which a black scientist invents a procedure for converting blacks into whites and sets up a hugely successful clinic in Harlem; Schuyler seems adept at skewering both black and white attitudes, and it’s more than enough to make me want to read the novel. Still more intriguing is one of the new stories, Evie Shockley’s ‘‘separation anxiety’’, set in a 22nd century in which minorities of all types have been given the option of living in government protected cultural enclaves; the idea that multiculturalism could be so thoroughly abandoned in favor of legal, voluntary ghettoes is disturbing, but as the title suggests, human motivations prove more complex...

Among the book’s strongest stories are famous reprints by Samuel R. Delany (“Aye, and Gomorrah”) and Octavia E. Butler, (‘‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’’), as well as several originals:

Steven Barnes, whose fiction seems to be maturing rapidly since the days of his martial arts novels and Larry Niven collaborations, offers a powerful study of individual responsibility and near-future terrorist politics with ‘‘The Woman in the Wall’’. Tananarive Due’s ‘‘Like Daughter’’ is an even more deeply characterological study, which uses a variation on cloning to explore ways of coping with childhood deprivation and abuse; its handling of point of view -- one of Due’s strong suits in her novels as well -- is masterly. Nalo Hopkinson, the most recent author to gain the level of recognition of Due and perhaps Barnes, is represented by two stories: the wonderfully titled ‘‘Greedy Choke Puppy’’, drawn from the same Caribbean folklore as her two novels, and ‘‘Ganger (Ball Lightning)’’, an odd erotic tale about sensory stimulation outfits or stimsuits which take on a mind of their own (well, maybe mind isn’t the right part of the anatomy). A still newer writer, Linda Addison, shows considerable promise with ‘‘Twice, at One, Separated’’, set in a Yanamomi village which in turn is part of a generation starship; the conceit is far from new, but the execution is skillful.

Wolfe concludes,

Dark Matter is a celebration and will for many readers be a revelation, and it may well be a watershed in the long overdue but rapidly accelerating diversification of SF as a whole.


Gary K. Wolfe again:

Ellen Datlow’s Vanishing Acts is an anthology of mostly original stories with a sprinkling of older material, but Datlow’s anthology is intended not to showcase writers, but to highlight a theme, in particular the theme of endangered species. ... Vanishing Acts is a thoroughly engaging book on a topic which, if anything, is not as trendy as it ought to be. Nor is it a garment-rending collection of homiletics and jeremiads -- if anything, most of Datlow’s contributors seem to assume the worst, and write from a perspective of loss rather than anger. ...

[B]oth ends of Datlow’s book contain stories that are spectacular. The lead story, Suzy McKee Charnas’s ‘‘Listening to Brahms’’, is a 1989 work which, according to Datlow, led to the original idea of the anthology in the first place. Narrated as a diary which sometimes skips decades between entries, it concerns seven astronauts rescued by an alien race after the earth is destroyed and taken to live on the aliens’ home planet, where they begin to infect the local culture with human styles and values. Music is the narrator’s only continuing refuge over the long years of alienation, as the survivors die off one by one, and a kind of madness overtakes the rest. The ending of the tale is simply brilliant. This is followed by one of the strongest of the original stories, Paul J. McAuley’s ‘‘The Rift’’, which involves a hazardous expedition into a fathomless, mist-covered canyon in the Amazon basin. With its familiar cast of characters -- the young couple, the grizzled veteran, the dedicated scientist -- the story effectively captures much of the flavor of the old Haggard-style tales of exploration, but with a genuine science fictional mystery involving a lost race at its core. ...

At the end of the book are two more powerhouse stories... Ted Chiang’s ‘‘Seventy-Two Letters’’ continues this tantalizingly unprolific author’s amazing string of blockbuster novellas, and is easily the most remarkable story in the collection. The story traces the life and career of Robert Stratton, a brilliant scientist in Victorian England -- but a much different Victorian England from what we know, and yet not quite an alternate history either. In Stratton’s world, the medieval alchemical doctrine of names has evolved into a sophisticated science and given rise to a robotics industry in which machines are animated by slips of paper containing their secret names, in which a human sperm is a microscopically small, transparent human form, and in which sexual reproduction consists of the female principle infusing this form with the spark of life. Stratton, a ‘‘nomenclator’’, dreams of using his science to free the working classes of drudgery, but finds himself involved with a secret group of scientists whose goal, instead, is to prevent the human race from dying out in five generations -- as their experiments prove it will. Apart from the ingeniousness of the story’s plot, Chiang manages somehow to construct a complete alternative science, with magical names serving a role very much like that of DNA, which nevertheless illuminates the very same social issues that faced real 19th-century scientists, and reflects in even subtler ways very contemporary issues. It is a stunning piece of work.

Other stories covered by Wolfe in his review are by Bruce McAllister, Ian McDowell, Brian Stableford, Karen Joy Fowler, David J. Schow, William Shunn, A.R. Morlan, Mark W. Tiedemann, Michael Cadnum, M. Shayne Bell (“the wackiest story which a devotee of the old rock group ABBA searches for surviving examples of extinct species among the potted plants in office buildings”), Daniel Abraham, and Joe Haldeman.

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