ETA: Coming out in August
I’ve just finished Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories. This excellent collection succeeds in every possible way: not only does it fulfill its mission to deliver fantasy stories with diverse protagonists (along many axes of diversity: ethnic, geographical, physical and mental status, sexual orientation, and gender1), written by equally diverse authors, but it also delivers diversity of mood, tone, and style. The stories are all excellent, some of them breathtakingly so. One editor, Julia Rios, is American; the other, Alisa Krasnostein, hails from Australia, and perhaps for that reason there’s also a nice hemispheric balance in the collection.
You know a story’s good when you’re compelled to share it, which happened to me several times while reading—first with Ken Liu’s “Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon.” The title refers to the Qixi Festival, commemorating the yearly meeting of the celestial lovers Zhinü, the Weaver Maiden, and Niulang, the Cowherd, on that date. When the story opens, Yuan, who lives in Hebei, China, is about to be separated from her friend and lover Jing, who is going to America for school. I assumed—wrongly!—that I was in for a connect-the-dots parallel between the two girls’ present-day situation and the folktale. In fact, Liu had something better planned—a fantastic journey, and touching, unexpected advice, which an aged Zhinü shares with the lovers. I shared the story with a friend of mine who was suffering a separation from a friend, and she too was surprised and moved by it.
The second story I shared was the very next story in the anthology, “The Legend Trap,” by Sean Williams. Three friends enter a d-mat booth to test the urban legend that entering the destination “Bashert Ostension” will take you to an alternative universe, just a hair’s breadth away from our own. I knew my sixteen-year-old son would love this: I had him read it to me, and we kept talking about it for days. It’s a tense, exciting story with the atmosphere of an updated version of The Twilight Zone. Big applause for the names of all the neverwhere destinations that Williams comes up with—things like Addison’s Adit, the Fistula, and the Long Way Home. (But where’s the diversity? you may be asking—more on that later.)
On the third occasion, I read the story to my son: it was Karen Healey’s hugely inventive “Careful Magic.” Helen is an outsider in her school in part because of her OCD compulsions and in part because she’s chosen to declare for Order magic, whereas most of her classmates prefer Chaos magic (her own mother has the rank of Chaos Queen). Healey deftly introduces these magic systems and their differences in the context of an enchantment an unscrupulous fellow student has cast, which Helen must break. There’s a whole novel’s worth of invention and characterization in this story, in which Helen’s OCD is emphatically not a source of her strength, but a reality she has to live with.
My final most-favorite story, Sofia Samatar’s “Walkdog,” takes the form of an essay by teen student Yolanda Price, complete with footnotes and occasional spelling errors. Writing on the topic “Know Your Environment,” Yolanda describes for her teacher, Ms. Patterson, the mythical Walkdog, sourcing her information primarily from a lonely boy’s imagination, supplemented with scraps of news, scholarship, and the songs of blueswoman Maisie Oates. Yolanda’s voice is superb, and her transition from somewhat scornful of her main source of information—the geeky Andrew Bookman—to remorseful and bereft is masterful and heart wrenching. This is a true gem of a story, a compelling mix of humor and sorrow.
There were several other stories that also impressed me hugely, and every story had something to recommend it. Rios and Krasnostein were wise to start the collection off with Tansy Raynor Roberts’s “Cookie Cutter Superhero,” the story of Joey, a teen girl who’s been chosen to join Australia’s superhero squad. Will Joey be a Legacy, taking over the role of an established superhero, or will she be an Original—a brand new hero? Equally troubling to her is the question of whether she should let the superhero machine “fix” her malformed left arm and hand. With its commentary on celebrity, commodification, and the place of women in superhero teams, “Cookie Cutter Superhero” is an engaging introduction to the anthology.
“End of Service,” by Gabriela Lee, looks at the emotional costs of separation caused when parents leave their home countries to work overseas, sending remittances home. When the body of Aya’s mother is returned to Manila from Saudi Arabia, Aya can hardly even mourn—and then she finds out that even in death, her mother isn’t free from her employment contract. Lee vividly evokes a near-future Philippines backdrop, against which we experience Aya’s conflicting emotions.
In Jim Hines’s “Chupacabra’s Song,” young Nicola Pallas, who is autistic, likes to help her veterinarian father take care of animals. She has a secret gift her father doesn’t want her revealing, but when someone brings in a chupacabra, a scary bloodsucking creature out of contemporary legend, Nicola can’t hide her gift, and the situation gets very complicated very quickly.
Alena McNamara’s “The Day the God Died” is perhaps the most meditative, introspective story in the anthology. The narrator’s conversations with the god were similar in feel to the conversations Ashitaka has with Moro, the wolf spirit in Princess Mononoke, with the narrator reaching out, Ashitaka-like, in helpless empathy. The narrator’s unhappiness regarding their path in the world, which is complicated by issues of gender, perhaps contribute to their empathy for the god’s suffering.
“Signature,” by Faith Mudge, features a pleasant ensemble cast representing several sorts of diversity (race, physical status—one character is in a wheelchair—and sexual orientation), all of whom have had the misfortune to make a deal with a Rumplestiltskin-like character.
Tim Susman’s “The Lovely Duckling” features a transgender protagonist who’s trying to escape from parental control so as to attend a school for shapeshifters. The story’s told through memos and emails, a format I love.
I especially liked “Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell,” by E.C. Myers. Nemo, the designer drug everyone is using, lets you see a possible future with the person you kiss, or so everyone says. They climb into closets in pairs to test it out. Rene’s experience is different from her classmates’ —is this due to interaction with the meds she takes for schizophrenia? Or is there another explanation? Rene’s dogged experimentation, and her interactions with Sam, the kid who supplies the drug, are a gripping read. There’s a good line early on: Rene notes the board games stacked up in the closet: Risk. Life. Sorry!
Dirk Flinthart’s “Vanilla” is narrated by Kylie Howard, the Australia-born daughter of an assimilation-oriented Somali father. Kylie’s teacher has urged her to keep a journal to help her “develop a sense of identity,” but Kylie uses the journal to chronicle her growing friendship with the Hairies, refugees from a destroyed planet who have been grudgingly accepted on earth. “Vanilla” is among the more messagey of the other stories, but I liked Kylie’s tentative cross-cultural overtures and her new friends’ responses. The ending was simultaneously surprising and not surprising at all—read it and see what you think.
Even more direct in its message than “Vanilla,” Sean Eads’s “Celebration” asks what would happen if the fate of humanity lay in the hands of aliens who were going to judge us based on what they saw at a camp intended to “straighten” gay teens. The earnestness is, fortunately, leavened with humor, my favorite moment being when the protagonist introduces himself:
He ignored Vinnie and looked at me. “Who are you?”
His gruffness scared me, and my fear pissed me off.
“James Caleb Wilde,” I said.
“James Caleb Wilde.” He looked down at his clipboard.
“Caleb. You have to pronounce it right. There’s an accent over the whole word.”
Anisa, the protagonist of Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth about Owls,” finds relief from the alienation she feels as a Lebanese immigrant in Scotland by spending time with Izzy at the Scottish Owl Centre. One of the elements of this story that I found most moving was Anisa’s interest in learning Welsh (one of the owls is named after Blodeuwedd, from the Mabinogion), and the reaction that provokes in her mother:
Anisa looks up from her notebook to her mother, and shakes her head. “No. It’s Welsh stuff.”
“Oh.” Her mother pauses, and Anisa can see her mentally donning the gloves with which to handle her. “Why Welsh?”
She shrugs. “I like it.” Then, seeing her mother unsatisfied, adds, “I like the stories. I’d like to read them in the original language eventually.”
Her mother hesitates. “You know, there’s a rich tradition of Arabic storytelling—”
Often, young people are expected to be proud proponents of their culture—while, paradoxically, the dominant culture denigrates or exoticizes it. All this can be too much for a teen, who may just want to be free to follow a personal interest. “The Truth about Owls” showed this, and I appreciated that.
With just a term of endearment here and a description of an evening meal there, Shveta Thakrar brings to life a South Asian American family and its alienated younger daughter Neha in “Krishna Blue.” Neha has a gift for art but chafes under the culturally insensitive tutelage of her art teacher. Delight in the vivid colors in her tubes of paint leads her to an empowering, but frightening, discovery regarding her relationship to those colors. This is an unsettling, imaginative story.
In Holly Kench’s “Every Little Thing,” Mandy seeks to put a love spell on beautiful Leah, whom Mandy has had a crush on ever since Leah helped her out one day last year. Mandy clearly hasn’t read “Careful Magic,” or she’d know she shouldn’t pursue this course of action. As it is, she has her geeky friend Natasha to advise her, but Natasha’s rather judgmental when it comes to Leah. The story was a bit too high school oriented for my tastes, but that very quality ought to make it appealing to Mandy-aged readers, and to Kench’s credit, all the characters are engagingly written.
Garth Nix takes the present-day plight of migrants who make life-threatening journeys in leaky boats and transposes it to the future, with the boats becoming spaceships and orbiting settlements replacing present-day destination countries. In “Happy Go Lucky,” Jean is a privileged member of a society where status is keyed to one’s luck, but all that changes when one of her two dads writes a subversive article. When the family is redesignated unlucky, Jean’s parents make plans for her to have a better future.
In Vylar Kaftan’s “Ordinary Things,” Katie’s anxiety manifests itself in OCD-like rituals that she constructs to keep herself safe. Unfortunately, they don’t always work; in fact, when emotional push comes to literal shove, they don’t work very well at all. This is a sad story. Katie’s future looks bleak. However, her insight into the power of ordinary things offer both her, and the reader, a glimmer of hope.
“Double Time,” by John Chu, is a fabulously clever story about the world of competitive figure skating, in a future in which you can go back in time about five minutes—a fact that figure skaters are exploiting by sending their future selves back in time to partner their five-minutes-ago self. Shelly’s mother named her after Michelle Kwan, and the pressure on her to succeed is almost unbearable. I was both fascinated by the skating lingo and details and impressed with the finely drawn relationship between Shelly and her mother.
The anthology ends not with a farewell but with a salutation, William Alexander’s “Welcome,” which features one of my favorite SF motifs, sailing to the moon. For quite some time, Antonio’s been making the smugglers’ run from Earth to the Moon, on the nights when the tidal bridge between the earthly and lunar seas makes it possible, but now his Abuela wants to give the run to someone else, because of Antonio’s chronic pain. This short, lyrical story, which is dreamlike, but tangible, is the perfect conclusion for the anthology.
Now to return to the question of diversity and how noticeable it is, or isn’t, in the stories. An important part of having diverse stories with diverse protagonists is having stories that aren’t focused primarily on the fact of the diversity itself. The protagonist’s difference—whatever it might be—from the majority population is just one of their characteristics and may be incidental to the plot itself. So, for instance, Yolanda, the protagonist of “Walkdog,” says, “I mean I consider myself a New Jersey native, what else would I be, even though I’m African and German and Spanish and God knows what else,” but her ethnic makeup isn’t the focus of the story. The Walkdog itself, part canefield legend and part blues fragment, shows more clearly the way in which minority voices can be present and powerful, and yet go unnoticed by the dominant culture—and yet, important as this element is to the story, it’s secondary to the themes of friendship and remorse.
Similarly, in “The Legend Trap,” two of the three friends are lesbians, in a relationship with each other, and while the fact of their relationship adds tension and drama to the story, it’s the relationship, not the fact that it’s a lesbian relationship, that’s important.
In many of the stories, the protagonist’s difference is more important to the story. This is the case with Helen’s compulsions in “Careful Magic,” Rene’s schizophrenia in “Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell,” Neha’s South Asian family life in “Krishna Blue,” and Anisa’s Lebanese background in “The Truth about Owls.” These tales aren’t about compulsion or schizophrenia or coming from a South Asian or Lebanese family, but those realities are central to the story.
“Terms of Service,” by contrast, is actually about the harshness of the life of overseas workers, and the toll the arrangement takes on their families. Similarly, “The Lovely Duckling” and “Celebration” are about the protagonists’ differences. And the presence of this spectrum of emphasis is as it should be: wanting to normalize difference and diversity doesn’t mean we should forgo stories that focus on the hardships associated with those differences.
In the end, though, I think the shining achievement of this anthology is that the stories are exciting, funny, moving, and powerful; they’re thought provoking, and they’re fun to read. I’m sure you’ll end up with at least as many favorites as I did.
1 The only imbalance I could perceive in the anthology is in the sex of the protagonist: the protagonists are almost all female.