28. K. Tempest Bradford, Until Forgiveness Comes
"I used to feel sort of bitter about the people who didn't stop to help the injured and, basically, stepped on them to get out. After that ritual I understood. It was hard not to bolt myself."
Disclosure: Tempest and I are co-bloggers at Geek Feminism, but we haven't met (alas! I am condemned to admire from afar.) "Forgiveness" is a ceremony and a wish-fulfillment fantasy and a serious argument about grief and morality. Above all, it is an effort to placate the angry ghosts in the wake of a terror attack, and to help the living and the dead grope their way towards, if not acceptance, peace. It's an admirably efficient and dense piece of world-building that uses the conventional shorthand of science fiction to shattering political effect. It reminds me a little of the good bits of Frank Herbert's Dune, but it's much better than that.
Now I have to go and read everything else of hers, and she, like all my other favourite short-story writers (Ted Chiang, Leonard Richardson, I'm looking at you) needs to go out and write me a space opera :)
29-30. Octavia Butler, Seed to Harvest
and Lilith's Brood
Not that I have time in my life for any other space-operas of genius, not with all the Octavia Butler I have yet to read. I am proud to say I have gotten two middle-aged white men addicted to her works. She's now in my all-time top ten.
If "Fledgling" is about venture capital and "Seed to Harvest" about corporate personhood, limited liability, capitalism and the patriarchy, "Lilith's Brood" - also called the Xenogenesis series - is about rape. Butler tackles the matter from every angle: colonialism, slavery, domestic violence, learned helplessness, genetic engineering, resource exploitation and environmental collapse. Her alien invaders see themselves as benevolent; as behaving as compassionately as they can while obeying the dictates of their genetically-programmed manifest destiny. Her human characters see them as monsters, lovers, saviours and worms.
Her tales are told in her trademark cool, clear, judicious sentences. She gives all her characters agency and integrity. Her jeopardy is not contrived or exaggerated for effect. Instead it stems organically from the facts of the situation. It leaves you with a lump in your throat not unlike the one you may feel when contemplating the death of beloved elders, or studying critical history. She is a bleak writer but she never gives into despair, and the effect of her books, at least for me, is anything but dispiriting. Her clarity of vision gives me courage and stiffens my resolve.
31. Guillermo Rosales, The Halfway House
"I taught five peasants how to read," she confesses.
"Oh yeah? Where?"
"In the Sierra Maestra," she says. "In a place called El Roble."
"I was around there," I say. "I was teaching some of the peasants in La Plata. Three mountains from there."
"How long ago was that, my angel?"
I close my eyes.
"Twenty-two... twenty-three years ago," I say.
"Nobody understands that," she says. "I tell my psychiatrist and he just gives me strong Etafron pills. Twenty-three years, my angel?"
She looks at me with tired eyes.
"I think I'm dead inside," she says.
Now this was a devastating book. William Figueras, a thinly-veiled author avatar, stumbles into a filthy and corrupt community care facility in Miami, where he meets Frances. Both have been betrayed by Cuba, and both still yearn for connection and hope. Simply and vividly written, "Halfway House" evokes the streetscape of Miami, the anxiety of poverty and mental illness and the horror of institutional neglect. If you want your day just freakin' well made, know that this brilliant, unforgettable work was not published until after its author killed himself.
32. Chol Hwan Kang, The Aquariums of Pyongyang
is pretty much the worst place on earth
's government is right down there with the worst in the world. It's the last real Stalinist dictatorship. There is no freedom; of assembly, of religion, of the press, nothing. Kang's book is one of only a handful of pieces of survivor testimony out of the massive concentration camp complex. It's an essential read.
Kang's grandparents were economic migrants from South Korea to Japan, where his grandfather became a successful capitalist while his grandmother became more and more involved in supporting the Communist regime in the North. Eventually she persuaded them to move to Pyongyang. Once there, of course, they could not leave, and predictably enough the capitalist grandfather eventually fell out of favour with the regime.
Among the many diabolical aspects of North Korea is its three-generation punishment policy. Because Kang's grandfather went to the camps, his grandmother, father and all his siblings were sentenced as well. His stories of life in the prison camps are all the more excruciating for their juxtaposition with his normal Westernized childhood in Japan and even his former privileged status in Pyongyang; hence the aquariums of the title. Totalitarian North Korea is not an exotic theme park. It is happening to people like you and me, right now. Go ahead and try not to be haunted by this book.
33. Ying Chang Compestine, The Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party
Repression doesn't have to be total to be horrible. This memoir of growing up in Mao's Cultural Revolution is packaged as a young adult read. It's pretty intense, and the thought of giving it to my daughter depresses me, but hey, it's a dark world out there. The writing is simple and lovely and one narrative twist in particular blindsided me like a whiplash.
(I didn't mean to have three fierce anti-communist screeds in one set of reviews, honest! I'm a very progressive European-style democratic socialist (forget the public option, go single-payer, America!) but I am for, you know, freedom and stuff. To be honest I suspect it's easier for writers of colour to get published if they're writing against nominally leftist regimes and can thus be positioned as poster-children for unregulated industrial capitalism. Saint Octavia, of course, transcends categorization of any kind :))