Three speculative fiction reviews for Week 40. You can skip the second review if you’re not up for reading negative reviews. Onward:
Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong (Nightmare Magazine)
October 2015; 6,600 words. Available online on October 14. Amazing, as always. I love how each of Alyssa Wong’s stories has a different tone and mood, yet all of them embody the best of great horror fiction. The imagery in this story stood out to me—all those terrible thoughts twisting like serpents, twining together like black barbed wire; regurgitated viciousness dark and sloshing in neat little jars that jostle with their malice… “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is deeply divorced from our reality in its premise, but it’s also a very human, very personal story that spoke in metaphors to my experiences. I found myself tearing up at the end without really understanding why. I suppose I echoed the grief of believing yourself to be so terrible, of wanting to do better, of wanting to cling to the good that you unknowingly let go. I love this story and how it hints at so many stories; trauma, personal and intergenerational, hums throughout. Fantastic work.
The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk edited by Sean Wallace (Running Press)
May 2015; 504 pages. I really wanted to like this book. Dieselpunk is an aesthetic that I’ve been fascinated with even before I knew it had a name, and I suspect my interest developed out of seeing dieselpunkesque Miyazaki movies when I was a child. So I was really excited when I was gifted this book, but found myself growing more disappointed as I read on. I did read every page, if only to understand what kind of dieselpunk I wasn’t interested in, but that others in the speculative fiction community had decided was quintessential.
A lot of the anthology wasn’t necessarily bad, but just didn’t appeal to me. Of the 21 stories, only a few didn’t revolve around war or the military, and a couple took endless war as a default in the story’s premise. I do understand dieselpunk to be an aesthetic set around World War I and World War II, but I have difficulty with the uncritical treatment of war and violence in most of the stories. That’s a personal preference, for the most part. I don’t think any of the stories were particularly grievous in glorifying war or rewriting history, so I don’t have much to say from that perspective.
I also found myself disappointed that the vast majority of leading characters were men, and only a few of them were men of color. Characters who are not described in terms of race or physical description aren’t automatically white. But, given that many readers and writers assume whiteness in U.S. fiction, the lack of comment suggests to me that the authors were following in the tradition of centering white characters. Plus, of 26 contributors to the anthology, five are of color, as best as I can tell. Twenty percent representation is… better than some, but not a ratio that lends me to think that many of the characters are actually of color.
I was also frustrated that the only story in the anthology to center a girl or woman of color was the one where an underage Japanese girl was coerced into sex work. Certainly that did happen in World War II, but when it’s the only protagonist perspective from a girl of color in the whole anthology, the story feels like a disturbing token. (Edit 10/5/2015: I had forgotten that E. Catherine Tobler’s story “Vast Wings Across Felonious Skies” also centers a woman of color—I skimmed some of the stories and did take not of that when I read it, but forgot while writing up the review. So, while I’m still disturbed by Catherine Schaff-Stump’s “Mountains of Green,” this point doesn’t hold.)
A couple stories left me uncomfortable with their treatment of people of color. “Black Sunday” by Kim Lakin-Smith centers on a white woman and has what I presume was intended to be period-level racism. Whereas I can see characters speaking and acting in a way that conforms to the racism of a certain context, the author’s writing comes from our contemporary context and can still be sensitive—or insensitive. For example, the very first paragraphs of “Black Sunday” pinged my radar as an insensitive character description:
Wesley Sanders edged the drink onto the table.
“There ya’rl, Miss Nightingale. Iced lemonade, or as Momma’s prone to call it, sunlight in a glass.”
The eight-year-old grinned. His teeth were large and very white, as if slicked with whitewash like the exterior of the Grace Presbyterian Church. His cheeks were nut-brown apples.
There’s the people of color as food trope, plus the odd hyperfocus on Wesley’s teeth, combined with “ya’rl,” which I never heard or saw in my time in North Carolina (though perhaps it exists and I’m not aware)—they all create a description that’s not necessarily from the POV character but more from the author, who could have written a more sensitive and creative description. Especially because the POV character wasn’t painted as racist and in fact was depicted as being more just on racial issues.
In “Floodgate” by Dan Rabarts, the white Australian main character literally describes Māori men as “filthy”—
The last thing she wanted right now was a Māori man putting his filthy hands all over her. Character point of view, maybe, but then a Māori character says,
The Māori are an ancient race. We haven’t lost our warrior ways, or forgotten our legends. Plausible for a Māori person to say, but it rings as an example of the Mystical Native trope, especially in the context of the story. Plus, the main character’s emotional struggle involves her grief over losing her brother, which is somehow the fault of a “dirty” Black girl, “black as sin,” that her brother loved. Overall, even if it’s plausible for the time and for the character, the story itself was uncomfortable for me to read and didn’t do anything to subvert its racism.
I really wanted to like “The Double Blind” by A.C. Wise. It has many elements that I like—LGBTQ characters, a f/f relationship, and speakeasies, for a start. I liked the parts where Emielle talks about the impact violence can have on a person. But I couldn’t let go of the transmisogyny, which felt outside of era-appropriate.
Tommy first appears in a sexualized image, where she’s “perched on Emielle’s lap […] The pearls had done a better job of hiding [Tommy’s] Adam’s apple, but the blonde hair suited her more.” I normally wouldn’t nitpick over word choice, but given that many transmisogynistic tropes hinge on a fear of deception, I felt there could have been a better word to use than “hiding” here.
Tommy’s next appearance involves a man harassing her, the man misgendering her, and Emielle stepping in to save the day. Emielle muses privately to Ronnie that when she saved Tommy, she could have been much more violent, but she held herself back. (By itself, this exchange isn’t necessarily bad, but in the pattern I’m outlining, it becomes another example of unspoken transmisogyny.) Tommy’s disheveled in her next appearance, her makeup smeared from crying—she’d been at another LGBTQ speakeasy that had gotten raided. And then Ronnie, who wasn’t sure what her calling was and how she’d bring about justice, decides she’ll punish homophobic politicians by blackmailing them. She takes a photo of a politician being intimate with another trans woman—
Unlike Tommy, this boy proudly let his chest hair show, dark curls visible above the dress’ plunging neckline.
So in all these instances, we have (1) a trans woman who always has tragic things happening to her with little or no agency of her own, (2) a trans woman whose sole purpose in the story is to give presumably cis women inspiration or a purpose (whether that’s through Emielle making Tommy’s assault about her, or Tommy’s raid becoming the impetus for the main character’s motivation), (3) only the ultra-feminine trans women being gendered as women with “she” pronouns, whereas a trans woman with chest hair becomes not a woman but a “boy” who let “his” hair show, and (4) trans women showing up disproportionately in hypersexual images, while desire for a trans woman is taken as something to be punished—blackmail holds no value if the subject isn’t doing anything considered wrong, after all. Ronnie gives no consideration to whether she’d be outing the trans woman with the politician, nor does she consider that the woman, not the politician, would be much more vulnerable when the blackmail goes public.
I don’t think any of this was conscious transmisogyny. But in telling stories about marginalized people, we have to consider whether we’re keeping them in the margins, especially if we’re doing so unconsciously.
Of all the stories in the anthology, I enjoyed “Tunnel Vision” by Rachel Nussbaum and “Act of Extermination” by Cirilo S. Lemos, translated by Christopher Kastensmidt, the most. I felt that the character death in “Tunnel Vision” was a little unnecessary, but it fits into the pulpy feel of the story, so that’s probably just a personal preference. “Tunnel Vision” was the tense but fun dieselpunk romp that I wanted, and I felt the same wonder as Lloyd at the end of the story. “Act of Extermination,” meanwhile, read like the sprawling dieselpunk movie I wish I could watch. Action-packed, multifaceted, filled with spies, assassins, accessible political intrigue, and a great touch of the supernatural—I loved the Saint.
Overall, I felt that the anthology could have been more varied. Surely dieselpunk has more to offer than war stories—I know the World Wars were key to the era, but people had other lives too. I still find it difficult to describe what exactly I want out of dieselpunk, but at least I have a better sense of what I’m not interested in now.
Mantis Wives by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld)
August 2012; 1,000 words. Recommended by Kat as part of her 31 Days of Horror list. A mesmerizing piece of flash fiction. Sadomasochistic, violent, clinical almost with the use of scientific terms, yet oddly sensual all the same. A dreamlike veil cloaks Mantis Wives—the story speaks of insects, but there’s something else lingering underneath, something that feels human. Trauma, maybe, and romance even as the mantises die together. Beautiful, eerie, and haunting.