RT Book Reviews is giving readers a chance to win all twelve of their Seal of Excellence books for 2013. The Best of All Possible Worlds is February’s Seal of Excellence winner, and so when they asked me to say a few words about my favourite book of 2013, I decided to be different. I talked about my favourite album instead – that marvellous blend of sci-fi, romance and afrofuturism that is The Electric Lady by Janelle Monáe. Go read about it and enter for the book giveaway.
Del Rey has submitted The Best of All Possible Worlds to the literary subcommittee of the NAACP Image Awards for consideration in their literary awards category. Now this is not quite a situation like the Oscars where I can hope for a full-page FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION ad in the major newspapers, but it feels very exciting and awe-inspiring and important to me. In fact, it’s so important that I have a request.
I understand that many reviewers like the fact that The Best of All Possible Worlds sites people of colour firmly in the future, in space, on colonies, in a way that is unfortunately unusual for much of the SF we encounter in books and movies. It’s okay for people to be happy about that, but I come from a region whose people and educational system have always had a firm grasp of global demographics, so for me it doesn’t feel like a particular virtue to have written the future the way it’s most likely to be.
What I am wondering is whether certain parts of my book are being overlooked by readers and reviewers who are not well-versed in postcolonial and Caribbean literature. I’m referring to two chapters: ‘Bacchanal’ and ‘The Master’s House’.
I’d be so grateful if an academic or reviewer in Caribbean and postcolonial literature could examine, assess and critique the book in general and those two chapters in particular from a position of expert knowledge. My job is to write the stuff, not explain it, and my policy is to rarely react to reviews, so I can’t guarantee any kind of ‘you’ve got it’ endorsement. I simply want to see a discussion started in an area that I feel is significant but has been barely mentioned as yet.
I’ve been working hard on some projects and thus only updated where I could be brief – twitter, Facebook and a couple of times even tumblr. But now I have a little time, so I’d like to recap some of the old good news.
I didn’t make a final post for my Carolinas trip, but there was not much more to tell. I had a fantastic time at Orange County Library and Chapel Hill Library with audiences that were far more mainstream/literary than SF, but very attentive and appreciative of my work. I also did a reading at Flyleaf Books. Very enjoyable – smaller audience, but the questions were still of a high calibre.
People who follow me on twitter would have seen that I came home and quickly went into AnimeKon Expo, our Bajan SF convention. Tobias Buckell was back, Robert Edison Sandiford had a new book out, and we had a bit of a Three Musketeers thing going where we had a panel together, kept our book tables side by side, and even managed a field trip for some story research. This was so soon after the Carolinas trip that it was hard for me to be at 100 per cent. I wish I’d had more energy and preparation time to get full benefit from the event, but I’m fairly happy with what I was able to do, and it’s always hugely inspiring to hang out with Tobias and Robert and talk Caribbean SF.
I’ve been invited to be Guest of Honour for the 2014 Åcon SF convention in Finland (SO EXCITED YOU HAVE NO IDEA). Details to follow in due course!
I celebrated the release of Jeff VanderMeer’s amazing writing guide Wonderbook on twitter, tumblr and Facebook. I’m extremely proud to be one of the contributors; you can find my essay on page 27 (here’s a teaser). There’s so much beauty and inspiration in that book that you’ll never get bored.
I was surprised and very pleased to find that The Best of All Possible Worlds made it to the semifinal round of the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Sci-fi category as a write-in-vote with reader support. Thank you so much to all those who voted!
Finally, I was absolutely thrilled that RT Reviews nominated The Best of All Possible Worlds for both Best Science Fiction and Book of the Year. The awards ceremony takes place at their annual convention, which is being held in New Orleans next year! Tempting! Very tempting!
I’m a little late posting this, but here is the wrap-up of Season II of SF Crossing the Gulf on SF Signal:
Karen and I summarise the books and stories we reviewed during Season II and briefly discuss our plans for Season III.
Episode 17 is up on SF Signal. Go forth and click!
Karen and I are actually in the same room for this podcast! If I sound a bit stilted, it’s because I was suffering from jaw inflammation and pain (wisdom tooth issues) and had to be very careful opening my mouth. Let my caution not be seen as a lack of enthusiasm for these works. I was especially blown away by Distances, so thank you so much Karen for introducing me to that book.
The second half of Episode 16 is now up on SF Signal:
In it we discuss two more stories – ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ (1961) and ‘On the Gem Planet’ (1963), finding ever-greater depth and complexity in the historical arc of Smith’s universe.
I should have done this a long time ago, but I’m travelling and I’m distracted. Here is a schedule of what I’ll be doing over the next two weeks, starting tomorrow.
SCI-FI/FANTASY SHARED WORLDS Reading & Signing
28 Jul, 3 pm
Karen Lord, Robert V. S. Redick, Will Hindmarch, Nathan Ballingrud and Hugo Award winner Ann VanderMeer and World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer.
Amazon Writer-in-Residence, 29 Jul-3 Aug
Various locations, North Carolina
3 (Saturday) 7 to 9 pm — Quail Ridge Books hosts the annual Bull Spec summer speculative fiction event. This year it is an absolutely fantastic lineup with Karen Lord, Nathan Ballingrud, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Robert V.S. Redick, and Will Hindmarch all coming up from the Shared Worlds Teen Writing Camp at Wofford College, being joined locally by Durham author Mur Lafferty. We had a blast hosting Ann and Jeff back in 2011 and it’s sure to be another great evening. And! From 9 pm to late,The Raleigh Review is hosting an after-reading “meet the authors” reception (also free and open to the public) at their Writers’ Loft. And! See below for more info on additional events with Karen Lord while she is in the Triangle area. More info: http://bullspec.com/2013/03/29/announcement-the-third-annual-bull-spec-summer-speculative-fiction-event/
NEW: 4 (Sunday) 3 pm — The Orange County Library hosts Karen Lord for a meet the author event at its main branch in downtown Hillsborough. More info:
NEW: 5 (Monday) 4 pm — The newly renovated Chapel Hill Library hosts Karen Lord for a “meet the author tea” event. Refreshments served at 3:30 pm ahead of the event. More info: http://chapelhillpubliclibrary.org/txp/?s=News&id=896
NEW: 5 (Monday) 7 pm — Chapel Hill’s Flyleaf Books hosts Karen Lord for a reading and signing of her deep future anthropological sf novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds. More info: http://www.flyleafbooks.com/event/karen-lord-caribbean-speculative-fiction-bull-spec
We discussed the short fiction of Cordwainer Smith in our latest episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, and there was so much to say that we had to break it into two parts. So here is part a:
We cover two short stories, ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ and ‘The Lady Who Sailed the Soul’. It was a very enjoyable discussion. Smith’s short fiction has lots of complexity and really lends itself to both literary and genre analysis. This is another example of an author whose work has aged well.
A new episode of SF Crossing the Gulf is now available at SF Signal:
Not only is Flatland one of my favourite books, but it is the oldest book we have discussed on this podcast (publication year 1884). When we compare and contrast it to the social sci-fi and math-fi of Yoon Ha Lee, a brilliant contemporary writer, you will see that it has aged extremely well and deserves to be called a classic of the genre and of literature in general.
These works discuss perception, worldview, paradigms and scientific discovery – in effect how scientists and their work are influenced by culture and personal bias. Fascinating stuff. I highly recommend this podcast if you have an interest in the history and philosophy of science.
It’s been far too long since I spoke about the Caribbean literary scene, but fortunately today (on Canada Day!) I have a great guest post from Bajan-Canadian Robert Edison Sandiford. In this post, he tells us about how his early visions of Caribbean superheroes inspired him to write the novel And Sometimes They Fly, published this month by DC Books,
Draw him, colour him, dress up as him—I think every kid remembers the first superhero he created. Not that first ideas are always the best. My concept, at age eight or nine, was awful.
The character was wealthy Reginald Van Buren. His sidekick was his muscular manservant—whose name I can’t recall—and very British. Their alter egos: Black Butterfly and Brown Derby.
Years ago, on safari, Van Buren discovered a giant black pearl that gave him, when rubbed, the powers of a butterfly, including wings. I hadn’t fleshed out an origin for Brown Derby, whose name came from the kind of hat he wore. (As I said, first ideas.) I got two or three pages of very rough colour pencils done in a blue Hilroy exercise book before I moved on to my next comics project: Lieutenant Laser Eyes!
These dreams of a grade school comics creator were derivative, built on conventions of the genre: wealthy hero, able sidekick, fateful adventure, mysterious powers. The ideas behind the characters needed converting or embellishing. Where the characters had true merit was in my aspirations: all the lead heroes mentioned above were black, with traits and speech drawn from people I knew, people who looked, sounded and acted like me in Montreal’s West Indian community, my community.
Throughout high school and university, this trend/inclination/artistic choice (I’m not sure what to call it since I wasn’t conscious of it at the time) continued. My character Bobcat, leader of a Canadian superhero team, was black. Safeguard of the North—my answer to Captain Canuck and Guardian and Northguard—was black; or at least not as white as the great northern country he represented might expect him to be. Despite buying comics where the main heroes were usually white—or maybe because of this—it never occurred to me how unusual my choice was. I was a black boy creating black heroes. What was so unusual about that? Seeing myself in them was about making reality more real, more complex and complete. Still, it was a decision I should not take for granted.
I teach research methods and research paper writing to BFA Graphic Design students at Barbados Community College. A number of my students are into graphic novels. They read them and write them and draw them in their spare time or as part of their major and minor graduation exhibition projects. According to the 2012 Census, eighty percent of Barbados’ population is black, and sixteen percent is of mixed black and European ancestry. My students’ environment is, therefore, visibly black. When these students enter the programme, however, many of them show work that is heavily inflected by anime and manga; their panels are not populated by characters who look like them or the people they are most likely to meet in their neighbourhood.
One of my students shared a story in class about creating a character in high school that was a protector of Barbados. The hero’s familiar was a water dragon. When one of his teachers asked him why his hero wasn’t black, or why the character didn’t reflect its creator’s own culture in other ways, he told her these thoughts had not occurred to him. At all. Another student in the class, fairly well-read and also an aspiring graphic novelist, said he could never find the epic in Caribbean stories, that spark to fire great works. The cartoons from Japan he and his colleagues followed, the comics from that country they absorbed, seemed more resonant than anything their history or reality might make possible.
The crime—let’s call it that—wasn’t that too many of my students couldn’t see the epic in their own people’s stories, which included the Middle Passage, slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, indigenous mythologies and folklore. The crime was—is—that they had never thought to fan the fire themselves: to create what was missing, to suggest what was possible, to write the stories about their own people that they wanted to read.
Part of the problem was the social engineering they had undergone as Barbadians, which I examine in my new novel And Sometimes They Fly. My students and many Barbadians like them were raised to believe other people’s heroes saved the world, not their own. Who would these worthy men and women be anyway? Their politicians didn’t call in the good guys when the going got tough; they considered themselves the good guys, and had put commemorative plaques on buildings and open spaces all around the island that essentially said so. Coupled with a decline in oral storytelling not redressed by a more active publishing industry, this belief in the outside hero has spelt the demise of the fantastic in much of Barbadian Literature.
Not entirely, of course. Barbadians—and their stories—are more tenacious than my students might think: more entertaining, more epic, and hence more enduring. Try, as Bajan or world critic, to dismiss writers like Kamau Brathwaite, Geoffrey Drayton and Timonthy Callender. You’d be missing out if you weren’t aware of others like Glenville Lovell, Ronald A. Williams, Karen Lord, and Matthew Clarke. It takes cultural consciousness to resist the drag of negative foreign incursion; the kind of cultural consciousness that can conceive of anything, including a black Superman. But not a black Superman. Despite successful renderings of, say, a black Green Lantern or a Latino Spiderman, I never wanted coloured-in versions of my favourite heroes. I wanted originals of my own, fighting battles people rather like me would fight.
When I came to write And Sometimes They Fly about fifteen years ago, it was not as a literary fantasy novel but as a superhero comic about a group of young people who fought to save the world. At some point over the years, I decided to tell the story in prose instead, yet I, too, was still missing that sense of the epic: Who were these young people, meaning where did they come from, and whose world were they fighting to save? The tragedies of 9/11, which seemed to touch on everyone’s life everywhere on this planet, provided the necessary perspective, as metaphor for cataclysmic conflict, and moment for godlike redemptive intervention…if one so chose. Yet it was the folklore of the Caribbean, of Barbados specifically, that provided contemporary context, the proper symbols, and an ongoing socio-historical discourse out of which the story could emerge.
The epic in any work comes from the writer’s understanding of his people and their place in history, what we might call Time, here; even if his people are embodied in an individual or their place is no larger than a village. His people, regardless of their number, race, faith or colour, are inevitably humanity itself, or his conception of it. Events in Egypt or Syria can have magic or tragic consequences for a family or woman in Barbados or Trinidad. The epic reveals the possibilities of a grander world, one made up of the worlds we already know and of others we still struggle to explain. To imagine ourselves onto that boundless landscape, as writers and readers, is no privilege, then, nor should it be viewed as a burden. It is merely our right, and our responsibility.