I'm someone who can be easily influenced by other people's perspectives. I heard a lot about the third story in this anthology, "The Green Book" by Amal El-Mohtar before I read it. In particular, I remember Rachel Swirsky's take on it
, which seemed very much like damning with faint praise when I first read it (but upon re-reading it just now is probably less harsh than that phrase conveys). Anyway, my brain stored it as "this story might not be very good", so I approached "The Green Book" from that perspective. I felt unimpressed for the first few pages--and I honestly can't tell you if that's because the story takes a while to pick up steam, or if it was my preconceptions. But the story definitely won me over. I love the tantalizing, creepy hints of the Sisterhood, with their strange uses for bone. I love the written interactions between Cynthia and Leuwin--especially her outburst about wanting to live in the flesh once more. Reading this story made me realize that I think I have a fondness for stories that are fragments of various writings--my own story "Some Notes on the Eisenberg Estate" takes that form. But probably my favorite thing about this story is how it can be read as sly, backhanded, multifaceted comment on the relationship between reader and writer, between reality and fiction.
The next story "The Other Graces" by Alice Sola Kim is striking for being so grounded in the real world in the present day--the first story in this anthology that isn't set in the future or some alternate past. The narration of the story is also very striking; it's told in the second voice, in this strangely intimate way. As I read it, I thought, "is this Grace speaking to herself, commenting on her own life?" And then, I realized, with great admiration for how skillfully the story was crafted, that it was one of "The Other Graces" commenting on the protagonist's life. This is one of the those stories that I want to run around and tell people to read, like some strange evangelist. I think that this story has wide appeal--that a lot of people who don't typically like speculative fiction (or who think that they don't like speculative fiction) could enjoy and appreciate this story. I can easily imagine it being published in one of those hipper, more postmodern literary magazines. Part of this is because the speculative element is less prominent than the detailed portrait of Grace's life as a young "yellow trash"* girl struggling to escape the unhappiness of her family by getting into an Ivy League school. The emotional depth and tension are heightened by the narrator's commentary on this quest, which is knowing and alternately bitter and compassionate. But the speculative element--a group of Other Graces from (it seems) parallel dimensions, who offer to help Grace cheat on the SAT by transporting themselves into her mind--is very important, and has a deep resonance with the central conflict of the story. They are, in my reading, a metaphor for her desire to change herself, to become a different, future self. I know some speculative fiction folk think that speculative elements that are clearly metaphors are somehow impure, not true science fiction or fantasy, but I love them.
*This is how she describes herself.
"The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis felt, to me, like multiple stories struggling to fit into the same body. In other words, I didn't feel like the different elements of the story were fully melded together, or successfully balanced against each other. Accordingly, I have mixed feelings about the story. Towards the end, I thought the story was going to have the kind of happy ending that makes me nauseous, where the unrequited(?) love results in a marriage and that marriage simultaneously ties up the political plot. Thankfully, the ending is much more ambiguous and darker than that, with the love interest, Leah, reflecting on the attractions of the disturbing marriage practices of Venus. But it doesn't feel like the story led up to that ending, or really wrestled with the implications and depths of the Venusian "braids".
I also felt like the first person narrator--David--was intended to be a stand-in for the audience, with our twenty-first century perspective on this future society--but the problem with that is that he is also from a future, non-Earth society. He doesn't seem to be appreciably different from a current day American. I'm annoyed by science fiction set in a future that doesn't feel like the future (which, honestly, is most of it--the only authors I can think of who consistently create a culture that feels authentically futuristic to me are Bruce Sterling, Geoff Ryman--and that's really just based on Child Garden which is like the best science fiction novel ever and you need to read it right now--and William Gibson--and he's decided that the present is too science fictional for him to write about the future anymore.** [Some science fiction feels like it's not really supposed to be in the future, but in some mythic Othertime, a la Star Wars "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." I feel this way about Ursula K. Le Guin, who is one of my favorite speculative fiction writers ever, and about what I've read so far of Nnedi Okorafor. As I mentioned in the first reflection, I really like that type of mythic science fiction.])
In thinking about the story right now, I do appreciate the fact that Carlos Fernando's plan is exactly the kind of plan that you might expect a petulant, super-rich twelve year old boy to come up with. It's somewhat ridiculous, and totally callous--and the terrifying thing is that it might actually happen. But I don't feel like the story conveys that terror very well. Part of that is that even the pirates--who are rebelling against a family that literally owns half of the floating cities of Venus--seem rather toothless and somehow naive. They tell David that they just want to talk to Carlos Fernando, which seems completely unbelievable to me--how many armed guerrilla rebels just want to chat with the enemy leader? Maybe they're lying to David, but there's no indication of that.
I do love the idea of floating cloud cities, and there's some gorgeous description in those story. And some interesting characters, the beginning of some digging into some interesting questions. I just keep feeling like the story could be a lot more integrated, a lot more deep, than it is right now. That feels like a strange thing to write in a review--it's much more like what one would write in a critique of an unpublished story. But it is how it feels to me.
**The weird thing about this list is that it's all (white) men, and normally I actually prefer fiction written by women. I would love
recommendations on future-feeling science fiction written by women and non-binary people.