The New Moon’s Arms – Nalo Hopkinson (2007)

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Having frequently heard of Nalo Hopkinson as a sci fi/speculative fiction author, and since I was in the mood for that sort of read, I checked out this title from the library. (I’d also been looking for a good fiction read by a POC author as well, so this ticked that box very nicely as well.)

So, not quite sure what to expect since Hopkinson was a completely new author to me, the first chapter got off to rather a rough start. OMG. It was so confusing – people change names for no apparent reason, there’s magical realism (which I wasn’t expecting), and there are animals who might (or might not) be mermaids/merpeople in disguise. 

So, taking a deep breath and really liking how Hopkinson writes, I soldiered on and interestingly it all got sorted out by the end of the second chapter. So – heed this warning. That first chapter is worth sticking with as the plot sorts itself out in the end. (And I must admit – the fault may have been mine, but just in case…) 

To the book itself: The narrative arc follows a redemption story, really, with a pretty unlikable and prickly character (she who changes names in the first chapter) and what happens when she takes in a child she finds on the beach of her Caribbean (or similar) island. 

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Nalo Hopkinson. (Picture credit.)

Calamity (also called Chastity at certain parts) is dealing with two big situations at the moment. One is the death of her father (from whom she’s been estranged since her teenaged years) and the other is that whenever she has a hot flash due to menopause, her finger tips tingle and her long-lost childhood ability of finding lost things comes alive. The things found range from a blue and white plate from her childhood to an entire grove of cashew trees that materializes one day outside her house to the mysterious beach child with sea shells in his/her hair… 

At the same time as all this is going on, Chastity/Calamity’s also becoming more involved with the issue of the group of particular rare seals who live on one corner of her island home. She makes friends with a seal researcher and so throughout this narrative, there’s this collision (of sorts) between the roles and importance of science and myth, of magical realism and reality, of things unexplained by rational logic. 

Interestingly, there are collisions of other sorts as well: the protagonist has ongoing tussles with her relatives over various points; the arrival of the beach child causes concern for all when Calamity/Chastity decides to look after him/her; there’s discord between the protagonist and her father; there is the struggle at that point where the sea overlaps with the land, with science and magic… This turned out to be such a thoughtful read for me, so it was much than “just” magical realism/spec fiction. 

I’m not typically that huge a fan of magical realism, but this is mostly a straightforward drama with sprinkles of magic through in along the way, so I found it more palatable than I thought it was going to be. (I had it categorized as a broccoli book, but it was actually much better than that perception.)

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this read and thought that this was really a well-written book. One of the Goodread reviewers described the writing as almost liquid in a way, and that’s exactly how I viewed it. It’s a smooth read, like a stream running through rocks and roots – there are obstacles to face, but how they are handled by the characters runs really fluidly. 

This turned out to be really good read and I ended up completing it in two days (which is fast for me). I’m also convinced enough to look around and see what other library titles by Hopkinson are available. She’s that good. 

If you’re not familiar with Hopkinson, I recommend taking her work for a spin. It’s a deceptively easy read that will leave you with lots to think about. 

Kindred – Octavia E. Butler (1976)

OctaviaEButler_KindredBilled as the first science fiction book to be written and published by an African-American female author, Kindred finds itself quite commonly on community One-Read reading lists across the country, and although written in 1976, it’s still a powerfully relevant read for the world as it is today in America.

The story revolves around the main protagonist, Dana, an African-American who is living in 1976 and working on her writing in CA living with her white boyfriend/partner. One day to her surprise, she passes out after being dizzy, and finds herself waking up by herself in 1815 Maryland on a slavery-run plantation being put into the position of saving a young white boy called Rufus from drowning in the river. It’s only after some time passes that Dana manages to work out that she is slipping through time from 1976 back to the early eighteenth century with the goal of keeping Rufus alive so that he can father her grandfather in modern days, and the only way that she will not influence her future (and her very being alive) is to fight for Rufus.

“The ease. Us, the children… I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

Butler keeps the ethnicities of both Dana and Kevin under wraps for quite some time, so as a reader, it’s quite confusing as you read about how the African-American slaves with whom she interacts treat her. To them in their time period, she talks and acts “white”, but she looks African-American, so it’s tres confusing for everyone for quite some time. Eventually, Dana learns that her time slippage has the mission, and then as the chapters progress, the story fits together really well.

It’s interesting that when Butler published this novel in 1976, it was the two-hundredth anniversary of American independence from the Crown, and about a century after the emancipation of slavery and thus, is an obvious link with that difficult history. It’s much deeper than you realize at first, as the novel is very well written and the relationships between Dana and her fellow slaves are delicately handled. With Dana’s first-person modern POV, the novel seems epistolary in some ways, a reminder of some of the earlier first-person slave narratives except that Dana was born free and then was enslaved (similar to poor old Solomon Northup), as opposed to the more traditional narrative of being a slave and getting one’s freedom, such as was the case for Frederick Douglass and others.

However, despite the serious topic, it’s a fast read. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read — some of the scenes are harrowing in terms of how her fellow slaves are treated or how she herself is treated – but the narrative flows very smoothly and once you get the hang of the how and the why behind this time slippage, everything makes sense. Despite the fact that this is fiction, Butler sets it up so convincingly that at times, I just fell completely into the story itself that it read as though it was actually happening. (Sign of a great writer, methinks.)

Octavia Estelle Butler was an American science fiction writer, and the first African-American female sci-fi writer. Butler was awarded both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and in 1995, became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. She died in 2006.

I really loved this read and am now interested in reading more of Butler’s work.  Going to toddle off to the library soon…

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Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank (1959)

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I’m not sure where I found this title, but I was just tootling around thinking about how I’d like to some sci-fi, when I saw it on a shelf in a local thrift shop and picked it up. It’s more speculative fiction than hard sci-fi, I would say, but it’s certainly set in a world that is far different from our own. Written in the late 50’s, it’s an apocalyptic novel which is set in the small town of Fort Repose, in central Florida, and follows the town inhabitants as they try to survive after a nuclear war starts and their area is hit. How would people react in this new world? …

Since it was published in 1959, one needs to cast one’s mind back to those times in history, and remember that this was smack in the middle of the Atomic Age and nuclear devastation was a very real concern for the Americans, especially from the threat of Russia. (Those darned Russkies.) School children were being taught safety drills if a nuclear bomb did explode in their neighborhoods, and although there’s a lot of embrace for modern inventions of the time, it was tempered by fear of “what if…?”

The scene is set in a very traditional small-town values community, filled with “typical” Americans working and living side by side, as one does. A few of the townspeople are retired military and a couple have had some military training from the earlier WWII, but overall, the town is very run-of-the-mill in its demographics. Husbands work, wives stay at home, and kids are white and well-behaved. Residents (and the rest of America) are concerned about nuclear bombs, but it’s more of a concern for other cities and states who have more important resources to worry about. Fort Repose wouldn’t get it, would it?

As you can probably surmise, Fort Repose does get impacted by a nearby explosion and a lot of their community dies, either on that day (now called The Day) or from radiation sickness and other ailments linked to the fallout. Just a small handful of people are left alive, and after their initial shock about the bomb, they need to work on getting food, water, power, housing… And health. Who will die from the after-effects? There are so many unknowns for this community, and it’s pretty Lord of the Flies after a few days.

However, as is perfect of a 1950’s story, a manly man perks up to save the day and the womanly women stand around and do as they’re told and cater to the men. (It’s pretty interesting to read this through a feminist twenty-first century lens. Did people really feel this way? …)

This was a pretty interesting read, especially through a lit-crit lens, so I was glad I found it in the thrift shop the other day.

(The title, just so you know (and I didn’t as I’m a heathen…), is based on a saying from the biblical book of Revelations, which is (according to Wiki): “Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that might city! For in one hour is thy judgement to come” (or similar). The phrase “Alas, Babylon” is a code phrase between two now-adult brothers and only used in a big emergency. Obvs, such a day as a nuclear explosion counts…!)

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1953)

With the recent demise of Ray Bradbury, I thought it was an opportune time to read “Fahrenheit 451” again. It’s been a long while since I have read it and, with the world as it is right now, I wanted to remind myself of the story. Despite being written so long ago, it’s still as prescient as ever (unfortunately).

The story of censorship and book burning is still fresh, and I found it really interesting to see protagonist Guy Montag’s evolution and growth as he learns about the world around him and how books have played a role. Meeting neighbor Clarisse is significant as she opens the Pandora’s box of knowledge for him in so many ways, and was the trigger for Montag learning to think critically and to evaluate what was happening around him. It’s sort of an easier-to-swallow Animal Farm in some ways.

One of the notable sections of the book was the realization of Montag of the joy of silence – to appreciate it after years of noise from the electronic “parlor families”. Having lived with constant media, he is entranced by the sounds and smells of nature and how fresh they were in contrast with the recirculated air and anesthesia of his previous life. I think that this could be true of some people today, who encircle themselves with round-the-clock television, computer games and social media. How do people live with such a constant barrage of noise on the senses? I would go batty rather quickly if I didn’t have my Quiet Times (and these are important enough to warrant Capital Letters in my view).

I also found it fascinating to watch him realize that fire could give as well as take. In his former role as a firefighter, his job was to burn things, but it wasn’t until he had left his old life behind, that he realized that fire could be a tool to help as well: through light, through warmth. He had only seen it before in its role of destroying things, not of creating things, and this was really well written that I found it as exciting as much as Montag did.

Another point I noted was the selection of books and authors who the rebels chose to memorize: Bertrand Russell, Thoreau, Byron, Thomas Paine, Machiavelli, Aristophanes, Lincoln… Do you think that if this situation arose again, like-minded people would choose similar authors today? I doubt it, although I could be wrong. I would imagine that a lot of people don’t even know who these people were, let along what they wrote. (I am fuzzy about a few, so I’m not perfect here.) What would you choose if you were in that situation? I will have to think about this some more for my own choices.

Just loved this book. (Plus it was printed in a lovely font and had lovely pages. Just lovely all over.) 🙂

Reading this got me thinking about the world today, and I see reading and the arts *still* being neglected. I have a  very sweet twin niece and nephew in CA, and their school does not have any classes in the arts anymore, so the parents have to pay extra for the kids to attend an after-school program taught by other parents. This strikes me as being rather short-sighted; why are students only being taught what “we” want them to learn and directed by test? (Who is deciding this? Who are the “we”? School boards?) Do JHS and HS students still write essays as part of their exams or is it all Scantron now?

Oh, and I was curious about why the fire-engines in F451 were called “Salamanders” – it turns out that salamanders are part of a group of amphibians who have to live in or very near to water. Thus, the fire engines are mechanical salamanders as they transport and provide water to the blazes. Huh. So now you know.

Notable quotes:

  • “We’re nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise…”
  • “Stuff your eyes with wonder…”

QUOTE:

“There was a damn silly bird called a phoenix, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up… But every time he burned himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a 1000 years, and as long as we know that and always have it where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation…”

And this re: libraries (from Bradbury’s Coda):

“…There I strolled, lost in love, down the corridors, and through the stacks, touching books, pulling volumes out, turning pages, thrusting volumes back, drowning in all the good stuffs that are the essence of libraries…”

Interesting story associated with the writing of this: Bradbury didn’t have a quiet space to write as he had young children at home, so he turned to the local university’s basement library where he could rent a typewriter for a quarter for half an hour… Some people use quarters for a beer drinking game. Bradbury used them to write a classic. Impressive. 🙂

Added later: Saw this piece of newsy goodness about a possible book burning… Just a different kind.