STORY REVIEW: A Rumor of Angels by Dale Bailey. Magical-realist Americana

A Rumor of Angels: A Tor.Com OriginalA Rumor of Angels: A Tor.Com Original by Dale Bailey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The real star of this moody tale is the evocative, immaculately crafted language. At its heart, this is a simple tale that sets a coming-of-age story against the Great Migration during Dust Bowl days. The fantasy element, while essential to the story, is slight and belongs in the Magical Realist tradition of Ray Bradbury. The sense-of-place piece recalls the work of Willa Cather and John Steinbeck.

The specter of Gratuitous Diversity and other fictions

When I was 3 apples high, I went to my mostly white school’s library, and chanced upon a book with a title that intrigued me, Andre Norton’s Lavender-Green Magic. I read it in 2 gulps, not only because it had witches (a perennial favorite subject of mine), but because it featured African-American (or in the parlance of 70s, Afro-American) kids living in a mostly white town. My mind: blown. Up until then, all the fantasy book I’d read either had pseudo European characters or talking animals. I loved the idea that someone who had an experience similar to mine could have magical adventures like those kids in Edward Eager books or the Narnian adventures.

lavender-green magic

A few years later, in the full swing of adolescent angst, I can upon my older brother’s copy of Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. (The iconic paperback version, the one with the engorged sun showing through a destroyed cityscape). Thumbing through it, I read about characters who had unique and somewhat underground sexual appetites—and their sexual identities were integral parts of themselves. Again, my mind was blown. Gays and other sexual minorities were just people….in a science fiction novel!

I bring these examples up not only to talk about the importance of diversity in speculative fiction, and also, to challenge a common strawman argument against it. A little background: the author Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote a provocative article entitled Post-Binary Gender in SF:Introduction on Tor.com, an inaugural post of a series which promises to examine SF that studies that issue. I read the piece, enjoyed it, and moved on. Then I saw, much later (via Jim C. Hines’ blog), that MacFarlane’s article (predictably) rattled the nerves of certain quarters of the SF community.

The chief complaint (once you wade through the de rigueur cries of PC Fascists/ GroupThink/Thought Police) is the concern about Gratuitous Diversity.

It’s the idea that having a cast of characters that reflects the diversity of humanity will automatically result in Aesop fiction full of Sally (or Simon) Soapboxes. I have yet to read a piece of fiction where giving a character an idiosyncratic and unique background (ethnic or sexual orientation or, in MacFarlane’s essay, a non-binary gender orientation) actually destroys the work. Including ‘popcorn’ fiction. One of my Clarion instructors, Pat Cadigan, stressed the importance avoiding ‘default’ mode protagonists: Joe/Jane Q. Public and his/her various incarnations as Mary Sue or Gary Stu. (It wasn’t a commandment, either—rather, Cadigan meant it as one more tool in the authorial kit). If a character is a Sally (or Simon) Soapbox, and the fiction has the quality of an Afterschool Special, that’s a failure of execution. The spectre of Gratiuitous Diversity is mostly just a strawman. (I’d love to see examples of a work of fiction that’s improved by flat characters). I say “mostly,” because I think that certain tropes and stock characters—the Noble Savage, the Magical Negro, for instance–arise from deformed Aesops and well-intentioned fiction. And there’s the case of a certain wizard (we’ll call him ‘Rumblesnore’) in famous series posthumously (and post-serialization) outed as gay, which was arguably shoehorned in. (I remember the articles/blog posts amongst a certain cohort that claimed the author was courting the politically correct crowd). But even then, Rumblesnore being off-screen gay doesn’t hurt the his character or the story; it was the execution that was lacking.

There is no such thing as Gratuitous Diversity. There’s just poorly executed fiction.

STORY REVIEW: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu. A magical realist comedy-of-manners

The Water That Falls on You from NowhereThe Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This short story could be in the New Yorker. The fantasy element is slight and serves to underscore this comedy-of-manners family saga. The story is grounded in reality and comes alive in the tensions between the siblings. Reminds me of the “mundane” magical realism of Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Carroll or Karen Joy Fowler.

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On Meghan McCarron’s “Swift, Brutal Retaliation”

Swift, Brutal RetaliationSwift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a ghost story, but done as a realistic family drama. Think Cheever or Franzen rather than Shirley Jackson or Stephen King. The ‘horror’ is the disintraging relationships. The emotional brutality and unrelenting prose probably what placed this story on this year’s World Fantasy Award ballot.

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Short Story Recommendation: The Thing Under the Drawing Room by Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry’s story, The Thing Under the Drawing Room, is now up at the inaugural issue of the online zine Interfictions. It’s as colorful as a Jack Vance tale, with a distinct hint of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s a mash-up of the Mighty Thewed Barbarian trope and the coming drawing room comic tale. It has a sardonic wit that reminds of certain Tanith Lee fiction–and like many of Lee’s characters, sexual orientation is amorphous.  Berry’s prose is neat and crisp, and not purple. Maybe a little lavender. This is the second of Berry’s pieces I’ve read; check out the wonderful but very  different A Window or a Small Box now up at Tor.com.