Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: Diverse Energies by 11 speculative fiction authors

The order in which the stories in Diverse Energies are arranged is smart: the first three show the range of the collection, and the last story, by Ursula K. LeGuin, is so freaking fantastic (hello, it's Ursula K. LeGuin) that everything else pales a little in comparison.  In the middle, there are a lot of dystopias set in future Asia.

::The First Three Stories

The collection kicks off with Ellen Oh's "The Last Day," in which two boys raid the houses of the dead for food, dreading the day when the Emperor of The East will draft them to fight in the war against the President of the West.  After I finished the story, I read that it was an alternate history, imagining what might have happened if the bombs weren't dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  However, it reads a lot like a contemporary dystopia, and sort of foreshadows what's to come later in the collection.

The second story, Daniel H. Wilson's "Freshee's Frogurt," is an eyewitness account of the first incident in a robot uprising, and the third story, K. Tempest Bradford's "Uncertainty principal" is a time-travel adventure. 

"The world always changed around Ilana, but she never changed with it." 
The third story got me from the first line.  Someone is changing the past, setting the world around Ilana on a new timeline, and Ilana is the only one who remembers the old timeline.  This is one of the few stories in the collection where a scientific concept drives the plot.  And although there is enough plot for a novel, the author somehow makes it fit comfortably in a short story, answering most of the reader's questions while leaving room for us to imagine Ilana's future time-travelling adventures.  Impressive.

Taken together, these three stories show a range of breadth, a variety of ethnicities (Native American, Mexican, mixed race, East Asian, white, Black, and someone who I think is Middle Eastern, but maybe just Muslim), and an assortment of scientific concepts.  Interestingly, the stories that come after these three have much more in common with one another.

::The Middle Stories

Of the middle 7 stories, 6 feature Asian characters, 5 are set in urban environments, 5 assume awful climate degradation, 5 show the difference in internet access between rich and poor, 4 include adults forcing young people into service, 3 feature homeless characters, and 2 take place at least partly underground.  While I generally liked these stories--and I liked the range of romantic relationships displayed--they did start to run together.

They also got a little relentlessly depressing.  None of these authors imagine a future in which people of color are running things, or perhaps they are just more interested in looking at things from the perspective of someone who is disenfranchised.  Undoubtedly, they are responding to the tradition of white male elitism that has characterized the genre for too long.  But can I get some space opera or aliens or steampunk up in here?  I would have liked a break from dystopias.  And I would have liked to see a greater variety of settings, perhaps some in outer space, perhaps some in rural or remote communities, perhaps some inspired by Africa or Australia or South America?

What relieved my depression was the variety of ways the characters sought to take power back from the people in charge.  That is one of the positive things that occurred to me after I finished the collection: it could almost be read as a handbook for revolution.  In fact, I think it works much better as a primer for surviving the present than as a vision for the future. 

My favorite of the "middle stories" is Cindy Pon's "Blue Sky," mostly because it features a kick-ass, devil-may-care character.  While the setting's gloomy, it's also got a teen movie sheen to it--and I mean that in the best sense.  There's a carnivalesque city scene, a ritual display of teen coolness, and a sudden act of violence, followed by some quality time in a mountain hideout.  And while the story sticks firmly to the present and never reveals the main character's name, it also hints at his plans to overthrow the social order.  It's like the part of a superhero's saga that comes in between his origin story and his first official adventure.  Nothing fancy or genre-defying about it, but it's fresh and satisfying.

Unsurprisingly, Paolo Bacigalupi's story stands out, too, for the vividness of its setting and the web of political intrigue.  The world he creates seems huge, considering the size of the story.

Now, where have I seen a dystopian Asian city before?

::My Favorite

Ursula LeGuin's story is set much farther in the future, leaping past the problems of climate change, economic disparity, and racism to imagine a planet where overpopulation has destroyed the social order and people have created a new culture--a culture so alien that it seems cruel and senseless to outsiders.  The story is narrated by a young woman who grows up in this culture, helping her mother conduct an anthropological study of it.  However, the narrator is not an observer of the culture, like her mother.  She considers herself part of it, which leads to a painful battle of wills with mom. 

This last story is my favorite by far, but it occurs to me that it might not be a teen's favorite.  Perhaps--even probably--teens will love the variety of dystopian stories, because who doesn't love to read variations on a familiar theme?  Seriously.  The way I love re-tellings of Jane Austen stories and fairy tales.  I probably like the LeGuin story best because I love the feminist sci-fi tradition and the anthropological approach she takes to her world-building.  And while her story felt strikingly different to me after the string of similar stories, it's also a post-apocalyptic dystopian story--just much more "post."

Again, the order of the collection is genius, because it leads readers forward in time, from an alternate past to the present to the near future to the far.  I can't help but hope that it also leads teen readers from current sci-fi to old-school writers like Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler.  Not because they should replace the writers featured here, but because they are foremothers of diversity in the genre.

::So, what did I learn about revolution?

Many things, but two recurring themes: fight your own revolutions--don't let other people make you fight theirs.  And always ask for more information.  Don't believe what they tell you freely.

Also, dystopian futures are most likely to occur in Asian cities.  Good to know.


Diverse Energies comes out October 15, 2012.

Source: Netgalley.

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