The Warmth of “New Suns”

By John RiederJune 4, 2019

The Warmth of “New Suns”

New Suns by Nisi Shawl

NEW SUNS IS a varied, rich, and delightful collection of new speculative fiction. Before previewing some of those varied delights, however, let us take a moment to contemplate the importance of the subtitle’s proclamation that the fiction here is “by people of color.”

Samuel R. Delany, in his essay on “Racism and Science Fiction,” published in the landmark anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (edited by Sheree R. Thomas in 2000), wrote that the relative absence of prejudice he had encountered as an African American in the SF field was probably due to the very small number of African-American writers practicing SF, and that if their number increased to something that better reflected the actual population, “chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field.” New Suns editor Nisi Shawl dedicates her anthology of original speculative fiction by people of color to Sheree R. Thomas in recognition of the “groundbreaking” effects of her Dark Matter anthologies (a second anthology in 2004 followed the first one), and in her afterword Shawl relates how, in the 1990s, there were so few people of color active in the field that her proposal to staff the prestigious annual Clarion West Writers Workshop entirely with nonwhite instructors was turned down because others on the committee were afraid of using up all of the eligible candidates in a single year. But 20 years later, she reports, the situation has changed drastically, as “the anthology you hold in your hands could easily have filled multiple volumes.” She adds that she did not even have to issue a public call for stories because she “received plenty merely by asking the writers of color I personally know.”

So, as the participation of people of color in the writing of speculative fiction has increased over the last 20 years, has Delany’s prediction come true? Certainly one can cite examples of white males of privilege whining in predictably tiresome ways about the success being enjoyed by writers of color, especially women, in the awarding of prizes within the field. On the other hand, the prizes themselves (and there are too many to list without becoming tiresome myself) seem to attest that the field as a whole has been welcoming and thriving upon the increased presence and influence of nonwhite (and nonwhite-male) writers. Reading through the contributors’ biographies at the back of New Suns will inform you that the writers collected in this volume, even though it does not include such prodigious award-gatherers as N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, or Ted Chiang, have nonetheless won or been finalists for pretty much every major award in fantasy and science fiction. And indeed anyone who has been paying attention to science fiction in particular and speculative fiction in general should agree that the success of women writers since the 1970s and of more and more nonwhite writers in the last two decades has substantially changed the genre — in my own humble opinion, for the better.

It is not the case, however, that New Suns hammers home anything programmatic about the role played by people of color in shaping contemporary speculative fiction. The work gathered here is much more striking by virtue of its generic and tonal diversity than by any commonality that might be based upon the fact that all of it has been produced by nonwhite authors. Some of the stories are clearly science-fictional, such as Indrapramit Das’s “The Shadow We Cast Through Time” with its extraterrestrial setting or Anil Menon’s “The Robots of Eden” with its posthuman dystopia. Others work from folkloric and fairy tale traditions, such as E. Lily Yu’s “Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire,” which riffs on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to ridicule contemporary American politics, or Chinelo Onwualu’s “The Fine Print,” which combines folktale and fairy tale motifs about wishes and their costs with an allegory of postcolonial capitalist restructuring of colonial oppression. Yet others veer closer to horror (Rebecca Roanhorse’s erotic vampire tale “Harvest” or Alex Jennings’s eerie tale of identity erasure “unkind of mercy”), noir (Karin Lowachee’s “Blood and Bells”), and comedy (Tobias Buckell’s “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex”). The tonal scale similarly runs the gamut from the whimsy of Hiromi Goto’s “One Easy Trick” to the grim irony of Steven Barnes’s “Come Home to Atropos,” and the lyricism of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister” to Buckell’s clipped prose or Minsoo Kang’s intellectual wit in “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations.”

This is not to say that there is no trace of the nonwhite positionality of the authors in the contents of the anthology, but it has less to do with what is there than with what is not: any hint of celebratory fantasies of exploration, colonization, or conquest. My personal favorite in this vein is Minsoo Kang’s “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations.” The narrative, written somewhat in the manner of Jorge Luis Borges, masquerades as a piece of scholarly commentary on a monumental mural memorializing a treaty between a Northern emperor and a Southern conqueror. The author’s account of the one peaceful incident in the chronicles of a region whose history is otherwise dominated by war and genocide is based upon his analysis of a heretofore unknown correspondence between two background figures in the mural — the translators who systematically and deliberately altered communications between the two rulers to make the process into a treaty negotiation instead of an exchange of threats and bluster. The negotiators, an accomplished male scholar on one side and a lower-class, unheralded woman on the other, are the only ones who understand the language of their opponents, so they have no check on their mistranslations. This allows them to play on the insecurity of the brutal conqueror’s hold over his recently acquired territories, on the one side, and the delusionary paranoia of the insane emperor, on the other. It is also the story of the man falling in love with the woman, although it is not known whether the woman returns his love — a piece of indeterminacy that gently suggests the limits of the scholar-narrator’s own interpretive authority.

Another powerful non-celebratory take on the history of conquest is Alberto Yáñez’s “Burn the Ships,” a kind of fantasy rewriting of the conquistadors’ invasion of the Aztecs, except that it is modernized — the invaders put the natives in camps, some of the details (stealing shoes, mining corpses for gold from the teeth) clearly echoing Nazi concentration camps. When the invaders “purge” a large number of weaker, older, younger, sicker, or otherwise useless natives from the camp, a group of wisewomen conspire to work a spell that turns the newly dead victims of the purge into murderous zombies. This tactic succeeds in killing all of the invaders, but the price is that those who work the spell also must die.

In the way of meditations on the contemporary, long-term effects of colonialism, there are a couple of satirical pieces about tourism. In Tobias Buckell’s spoof, “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex,” a New York City cab driver’s stoned-out-of-his-mind extraterrestrial fare jumps out of his aero-cab at 1,000 feet, but instead of it getting the driver in trouble, news of the incident heightens the attraction of visiting dangerous and exotic Earth. The bitterly black satire in Steven Barnes’s “Come Home to Atropos” comes by way of an infomercial for the “euthotourist” destination of the title, a Caribbean island with a history of slave trading, that offers its visitors death in the manner of their choosing, multiple options available. The irony in the penultimate sentence sums it up: “Watching one final sunrise, you’ll be able to close your eyes knowing that you have ended your pain and suffering in the hands of those who have much reason to wish to assist you.” In the prefatory note, a clueless corporate executive objects to the fact the ad campaign is pitched to upper-class whites: “Isn’t this racist?” The final sentence echoes back, “Isn’t it time?”

The other pieces in the volume that most directly engage with the racism and violence that form such a large part of the legacy of colonialism are Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Harvest,” an effective piece of erotic vampirism where human hearts are being harvested in revenge for settler genocide; Chinelo Onwualu’s “The Fine Print”; and Karin Lowachee’s “Blood and Bells,” a tersely narrated piece of futuristic noir woven from intertribal tensions in a settler state. Indrapramit Das’s “The Shadow We Cast Through Time” is the collection’s lone example of the once-pervasive science fiction scenario of extraterrestrial colonization. It is a haunting, beautifully told narrative of the evolution of a new hybrid species adapting the human genome to the host planet’s environment.

There is a good deal of haunting of one sort or another going on. The anthology includes a couple of innovative, politically suggestive ghost stories, Darcie Little Badger’s “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath” and Alex Jennings’s “unkind of mercy.” Moreno-Garcia’s surreal, atmospheric piece is about a woman struggling with her memories and — perhaps — her true, violent nature. In Kathleen Alcalá’s “Deer Dancer,” the protagonist is haunted by her own, disturbingly effective dreams, in the midst of a post-catastrophic society haunted by its past. Jaymee Goh’s erotic fantasy “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” recounts a kind of generational haunting by which a mother’s liaison with a mermaid changes the life of her daughter.

Finally, one of the most delightful surprises for me while reading this collection was to meet the three teenage protagonists of Andrea Hairston’s novel Will Do Magic for Small Change as seniors in a corporate-dominated, dystopian world set about as far in Will Do Magic’s future as Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire was set in its past. One hopes that this story is a fragment of a novel that would complete a Redwood and Wildfire trilogy.

Get hold of this excellent anthology. You won’t regret it.


John Rieder has been teaching at UH Manoa’s English Department since 1980, the year he received his PhD from Yale University.

LARB Contributor

John Rieder has been teaching at UH Manoa’s English Department since 1980, the year he received his PhD from Yale University. For the first 20 years of his career he was mainly a specialist in English Romanticism, publishing a book on William Wordsworth, Wordsworth’s Counterrevolutionary Turn (University of Delaware Press, 1997) and numerous essays on the poetry of Percy Shelley. From around 2000 on his research agenda has focused on science fiction. His book on early science fiction, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2008. In 2011 he received the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pioneer Award for his essay “On Defining Science Fiction, Or Not: Genre Theory, Science Fiction, and History.” He currently serves on the editorial board of Extrapolation, the oldest journal in the field of science fiction studies.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!