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Monday, November 26, 2012

Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction

This review is something of a mess, written over months, and at least four separate reading sessions. Which works in some ways, because Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction is a mess. I thought it was a short story collection, and while I admit it's my bad for misreading the term "anthology", it's not the best anthology. I can't tell who Grace Dillon, the editor, thinks she's writing for. Heavily academic, full of lots of jargon and dense, offhanded references to theory, writers and history that blow past your average reader. I have a good background in science fiction, and a shakier one in Native (North) American history - a minor in college coughcough years ago - and I could barely keep up. 

I probably should have just given up, but it got to be a grudge match: Grace Dillon, you will not defeat me with your horrible introductions and promiscuous use of epigraph. There's a lot of very cool material in here, a lot of both explicit and implicit criticisms of science fiction as a genre, new and odd angles on science fictional narrative, etc etc. It's a good place to get a broad polling of indigenous voices in a genre that is often extremely colonial in nature, which is what I was looking for when I picked this up. 


It'd also be a good place to start building a syllabus or a master's thesis, but as a pleasure reader primary, I didn't take much pleasure in that aspect of the anthology. Quit freaking mansplaining what is going on and just cut to the chase! The excerpts should have been doubled in size and the introductions cut to a paragraph. Terms, in general, should have been better defined - I don't think there was an articulated definition of either science fiction or indigenous, which might seem like talking down to the reader, but in an anthology predicated on contested things like genre and identity, I think more down-talking would have been preferable to the over-the-head talking.  

So I'm going to give this points for existing, and for having fairly strong selections, but I'm going to take many of them away for the huge editorial drag going on. 



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This was the book I brought to read while standing in line to vote. W00t. 

Notes in progress: 

So far the short stories have been excellent, but the introduction and prefaces to the individual stories are written like a Master's thesis, by which I mean pretty jargony and hung up on some really abstruse stuff. The editor has this pretty big boner for the concept of slipstream science fiction, and it's often pretty cool watching her twist herself in knots trying to make some of these stories come off as science fictional. It works a lot of the time, like the odd, dreamlike story "Aunt Parnetta's Electric Blisters" by Diane Glancy which centers on the technological intrusion of the icebox - culture transmitted through technology and all that. Plus, it's just really beautifully written, despite the dialogue being in dialect, which I normally loathe. 

"Custer on the Slipstream" by Gerald Vizenor is a harder sell, at least the way it is being sold here. At first glance the title seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the Master's thesis - slipstream! fiction! - except that it's referring to the 70s version of slipstreaming, which is using the wake of rig to pull your car along. I'm not saying it doesn't count in the collection or anything, but it seems (at least partially) like this is a mordant satire about the concept of "Indian time" - you know, "he runs on Indian Time, therefore he never shows up at the right hour" - instead of being about "slippage" and "culturally constructed expressions of time space that run counterfactually with national narrative" or whatever. (These are not direct quotes; I am being a bitch here.) 

Without even explicitly naming the concept of Indian Time, Dillon seems to fall into the usual apologia about how Native people are more in tune with the planet and nature and stuff - and, I don't actually dispute that time sense can be, and often is, culturally constructed - I just kinda get bothered by implicit justifications for racist terminology that use other stereotypical characterizations of Native America. The perception of the concept of Indian Time, by both whites and native people, might more be a function of the crushing poverty and often physical remoteness of most Indian Reservations, which might make it hard to show up at the BIA to treat with Custer at the hour set for such an event. (Which is, of course, not even getting into the fact that much of Native America is urban.) Which is kinda the point of the story - partially - so all this talk about slippage feels like it's missing the point. In other words, I think this story works in the collection, but not for the reasons outlined in the intros.

Anyway, then onto an excerpt from The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong , which I enjoyed until I had to just stop reading. In the intro, Stephen Graham Jones has some really interesting stuff to say about reading science fiction as an indigenous person - how so much sf encodes Western Expansion narratives in ways that are, of course, totally racist, but at least the SFnal shift makes chinks in the colonial narrative that your usual Cowboys and Indians story doesn't allow. Sure, Klingons are noble savages - indeed, down to using Crazy Horse's famous exhortation that "It is a good day to die" as a war cry - but there's a red-shift in the characterization. Badump tss. 

What I read of The Fast Red Road was totally PKD style identity freak-out and pretty great, but as just an excerpt of a larger work, it was difficult to track what was going on. A slice of an identity wig out is hobbled, because so much of a wig out relies on a series of reversals that can only be considered as a gestalt. At that point I paged through the table of contents and figured out that roughly half of these entries are excerpts from larger works, which seems a little ominous to me. I have given myself permission to chuck things as I go if they refuse to work in single-chapter form. 

I started into the excerpt from Flight by Sherman Alexie, but then it was time to vote! 

Vote Vote! 

A few more notes:

This is not true, but I will say it anyway: the intro to the excerpt from Flight was longer than the excerpt. Or boy did it feel like it. The section of this book I read on the plane yesterday was all bits of larger works, and Dillon's intros are beginning to wear, though I don't feel like I can skip them lest I not know what's going on. The intro to Flight feels like a shoehorn job, because the very brief passage from Alexie's story doesn't feel science fictional at all, but more in line with coming-of-age identity mind-fuckery. That is a perfectly cromulent literary device, I'm just calling bullshit on every act of mind-fuckery being science fictional. Plus, and I hate to say this out loud, but I don't like Alexie's writing style all that much. I read a bunch of his stuff years ago until I learned I should probably just not. He's really choppy and spare, and I can see how he's good at what he's doing, but he's just not for me. 

The excerpt from Refugees by Celu Amberstone (which, annoyingly, does not appear to be in the database) was the first of these bits that got me wanting to read the larger work. Taking place on an alien planet which had been seeded with Native people seven generations before by an alien race, and are now in the process of folding in modern Vancouverans (-ites?), the ideas felt like stuff from Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy, but written by John Crowley. Sort of. Not to be too blurbily reductive. The aliens are lizard-people, which has this really nice recoil to it, even while the (possibly hopelessly naive) damaged narrator - who was born on the alien planet - tries to understand what all the shouting is about from the Earth-born folk. There was a lot of nuance here, and motivations were murky and dangerously misunderstood - a pre-industrial utopia which might just be another reservation - conflicts between urban and rural. Really nice.


The Black Ship by Gerry William is hard core space opera, which is perfect. Space opera 100% encodes the colonial narrative in its little mechanical heart, and William is firmly aware of this, running the tropes with a twist. It's like if Chickotay weren't horrifyingly lame, all the potential of the conflict between the Federation and the Maquis running out into make-out sessions about Honor and the Chain of Command. 

Oops, I skipped over "Men on the Moon" by Simon Ortiz. I'll get to it later.


Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson is another one I'd pick up, partially because it turns out I dig her style. She's got a way of blending folk tale and idiom into SFF settings - at least going from this, and the other book I've read by her, The Chaos - while having this just splendid sense of the weird. Reminds me a little of Sheri S. Tepper in that, although I think Hopkinson is more playful. Good use of dialect too. 

The other Gerald Vizenor selection - this time from Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles  - did not turn my crank at all. I dig he foresaw the whole ecopunk peak oil situation in 1978, but the writing feels dated, and the excerpt goes nowhere. 


That could certainly be the fault of our intrepid editor's choice of excerpt though, a problem I see in the next two selections as well: the first from Mindscape by Andrea Hairston, and the second from Land of the Golden Clouds by Archie Weller.  I was only able to get through the second selection with some teeth gritting - and I don't think I got much out of it - and the first I was unable to complete. Which is not to say that either are bad, just that as small selections - often shorter than the editorial introduction - I couldn't track the characters, cultures nor conflicts in a meaningful way. Throw in stylized dialect like in Golden Clouds, and I'm out. Books teach you how to read them; they build their characters and dialects and cultures so it isn't an assault. (Certainly, beginnings can be assaults, but that is part of the learning process.) Being told how to read them in humorless academic introductions is not the same as the lessons you get in novels about how to read that novel. 

As uncharitably as I'm feeling about the editor right now - I am growing to hate her penchant for epigrams and academicese - I don't think any passage would work, so it's probably not her choice of passage that is at fault. These are complex, multi-cultural novels - not in the mealy-mouthed sense of multi-cultural, as buzzword for tokenism, but multi-cultural in the sense that its characters are all vocal and distinct cultural voices, and I don't think we're used to seeing that. Although there is absolutely a pan-Indian identity these days, the Native experience (in America, anyhow) is one of profound multi-culturalism, with hundreds of distinct tribes, languages and histories. And sure, some of my ancestors came from Sweden, and some from Wales, but that all just lingers on at Christmas. As a white person, I experience my Americanness - no past, glowing future - in a way that is monolithic: I am not Swedish-American or Welsh-American or any other hyphen American. I am American. Native people in the states have a second hyphen, or a third: they come from Native America, but they also come from a tribe, or tribes, or a profound and complex hyphenization. An other that is deeply individual. 

Things begin to pick up for me as a reader when I hit the "Native Apocalypses" section of this this book. I haven't been making note of this, and I apologize for my laziness, but these excerpts and short stories have all been grouped under various headings: Native Slipstream, Contact, etc. I'm on much steadier ground when the end of the world is seriously freaking nigh. Which might be a thing with this collection: I am a reasonably assured sff genre reader, but I'm little hazier when it comes to aboriginal fiction. I imagine if you came in as someone with zero interest in either of those things, you would be seriously at sea. This collection assumes you can 1) tolerate academic writing 2) read sff 3) have even  passing interest in indigenous fiction. Add it up before you pick this up. 

Anyway, so Sherman Alexie's "Distances" kinda blew my mind, and I'm sorry I said his stuff didn't work for me. This totally does. I have a shine for narratives about the black plague, that enormous pestilence and upheaval that profoundly reordered European history. A third to a half of Europeans dead? Jesus. Here's the thing: I've seen statistics that say that as much as 90% of the population of the Americas was dead by European diseases before the people of the interior even knew contact had occurred. ZOMG. Talk about your plague narratives. And talk about how for Native America, the end of the world has already occurred. There are stories of rivers so alive with fish that they could overturn the boat in the European discovery narratives, and that's because the millions of people who used to fish those streams were dead. Jesus. Dillon finally starts speaking to me in her intros, pointing out the sterility of most Western post-apocalit, when the world would rightly explode with verdency if we were out of it. This is the line that killed me, every time Alexie wrote it: "Last night I dreamed about television. I woke up crying." 

"When This World is All on Fire" by William Sanders is maybe more perfunctory as a short story - I could see some of the reversals coming - but I liked the more intimate reversals that were the set-up. The value of land changes as the waters rise, even the shitty, half-discarded land of the reservation, but the people, they keep being held to standards of blood and upbringing and jurisdiction. 

From The Moons of Palmares by Zainab Amadahy. I skimmed this one heavily again, because the set up was impossible for me to understand. The same excerpt problem again, though I could dig the space opera encoding from the not-Fleet perspective.

From Red Spider White Web by Misha. Well, this killed. I admit I have a long running love for the cyberpunk street-level diction, and this delivers the whole Sino-fetistist artist whackadoo milieu with a bullet. I dig the masks. I dig the main character selling her ass by the holographic proxy. I dig the scene where she holds the schoolchild down and undoes her masks like profanity. Hot damn all around.

 One more section to go!

Even though I had something like 20 pages to go, it took Herculean effort to pick this sucker up again. I had forgotten I even liked the armegeddon section, but for our last group of writings, we're back to abstruse and hard to follow, as least as it comes to Dillon's intros.

"Terminal Avenue" by Eden Robinson is a fine short story, and kind of a relief because it is a short story. Occurring right at the moment of a beating of a Native kid by faceless authority figures for his physical transgression outside a new, urban reservation, the story is impressionistic and almost Proustian in its digressions. The arm coming down reminds the boy of other happier transgressions, ones that didn't end in a traffic stop. Native America is often conceptualized as rural - and certainly the reserves are, often harshly so - but urban environments have their reserves as well. Don't cross the boundary lines.

From Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. Another selection, this time somewhat easier to follow, although the introduction completely fails to hit what seem to me the themes. Mordant, funny satire of commercialized Native America - con men in buckskin, Carlos Castaneda and his Yaqui bs - but met up with Native people using the commercial face of Native America to their own ends. Lots of terrorism and violence, which is interesting in post 9/11 world, because this was written 1991. Maybe Silko was right about the Ghost Dance.

From The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto by Stephen Graham Jones. I just don't even get this. Something about an android Lone Ranger and his embarrassed Tonto. I suspect the passage is too brief, and the intro fails to illuminate. Again.

From Star Waka: Poems by Robert Sullivan. You'd think something called Star Waka would be this big nerd joke about Star Wars slash Trek - the way waka sounds like war, but then turns out to be a boat, the way waka could be like walk, you know, or trek. And maybe that's a thing in there somewhere, but as a single poem, it's not.

And then that's it!

Finally.

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