Love in the Time of Starships: Grit, Struggle, and Fierce Love (Koyanagi’s ‘Ascension,’ anthology ‘Fierce Families’)

A few years ago, I saw a student performance of Fierce Love, created by the groundbreaking performance group PoMo Afro Homos (one of whom, Djola Branner, was my Father in the Art). These performance vignettes tell a story of love across all the usual lines, gay Black men in the 1980s-1990s finding their way in the world with and against the usual understandings of race, sex/sexuality, gender, and family, in the ongoing crisis of the AIDS epidemic.

Love and struggle go together, because very few people have the luxury of hearts-and-flowers idylls with no interruption, least of all those born into the margins. There’s the constant toxic background of unperson status, physically and psychologically dangerous working conditions, the ordinary conflicts between siblings, lovers, partners, parents, and children, that get an extra push from the low-intensity background drone of survival questions.

The same themes echo through Jacqueline Koyanagi‘s novel Ascension and the stories in the CrossedGenres anthology Fierce FamilyIf the anthology title intentionally riffs on Fierce Love, it’s apt; this brilliant anthology calls up the same conflicts in SF/F tales set in all sorts of families.

Working-class space opera

I came of age with the New Wave science-fiction writers and the first SF special-effects blockbuster, Star Wars. I still remember the sets, the working-class settings of Luke’s farm and the narrow streets of his home town and Han Solo’s beat-up and souped-up Millennium Falcon. That’s the first time I saw grit on the SF/F silver screen, and it made such an impression on me, that I went back three times to immerse myself.

Even in 1977, I recognized the characters as fairy-tale archetypes, but those sets … those sets were a lived-in future. Like still-lifes, they suggested a whole world beyond the margins of the story.

Ascension sets the standard for working-class space opera: a scrappy protagonist who dreams of working as a starship engineer (‘sky surgeon’), in a run-down city where her aunt’s repair and scrap yard barely keeps going against the off-world tides of corporate gentrification. Protagonist Alana Quick is a woman of color who struggles and loves, in spite of the daily toll of a chronic pain condition that will take her life if she doesn’t have regular access to (all too expensive) medication.

Then one day a ship arrives from off world, and for a variety of reasons, Alana risks all to stow away.

There’s rich world building here, with interstellar cultural change/clash embedded in the separate but parallel paths of Alana and her sister Nova. Nova, a trained spirit guide, is key to the plot, but comes across at first as a self-centered careerist whose clients include the wealthy and powerful. Alana’s passion for her calling drives this story, but Nova has an equally amazing arc, and the push-pull dynamic of rivalry and love between the two sisters has the tension and suspense of great realist theater.

The crew of the Tangled Axon, the ship on which Alana stows away, is an amazing ensemble, each of whom has had their own run-in with the corporate order. Nothing sparkly and shiny-new about them: the Tangled Axon is a tramp-steamer of the future, captained by a woman who ran away from an agricultural world, survived industrial accident, and formed her own family. The ensemble in this novel is polyamorous in the full sense: there are multiple loves, from vocational passion to sibling attachment to romantic and sexual relationship, including the prospect of children and a new generation aboard-ship.

This story felt utterly real to me. I share the engineer’s itch with Alana; my mother talked to machines the way that you talk to horses, as a farm kid and offspring of a long line of tinkerers and inventors. My father was a mechanic, among other things, and for all his scientific training took a conspicuously animistic view of problem-solving. (Not that this was all good: when he formed the conviction that the problem was laughing at him, the air crackled blue and my siblings and I took cover as in a tornado watch.) Alana’s kinesthetic connection to her work, and the way that she funnels physical pain and stress into clarifying fire, feels utterly real to me. Chronic conditions reshape one’s world and sense of time, and this story resonated both with my fix-it/hacker sensibility and my admittedly brief and passing acquaintance with the altered time of pain and fatigue.

The universe in this story is not all it seems. The boundary between technology and magic, between causality and alternate worlds, thins as the tale reaches climax. It begins in gritty struggle, where the facts of a very unequal social order unveil themselves in layer after layer of Alana’s worries and hard decisions. By the end, things have come full circle, or rather ascending spiral: the title is apt, for in the course of this suspenseful adventure Alana’s uphill fight is rewarded with a stunning prospect of her world and its possibilities.

Gritty and glittering galaxy of possible worlds (and new writers to meet)

I read anthologies for something new, and Fierce Family did not disappoint. In this and future anthology reviews, I work from the table of contents and giving a brief sense of each story. I’ve also used the live links from the Author’s Biographies at the end, if you’re intrigued and want to check out the work of the authors.

  • Dinkley’s Ice Cream by Effie Seiberg.  A magical carnival, and the hope that bridges generations: excursions that change the future for a mother and her small daughter.
  • Stormrider by Layla Lawlor.  Brother and sister, and brother’s partner, ride the beasts of an alien atmosphere. Wonderfully evocative story about human/non-human bonds as well as the attraction of an apparently hostile planet
  • Growth by A.C. Buchanan.  A nonbinary-gender adolescent in an extraterrestrial colony learns what it means to become part of a new world.
  • Aisthesis by Charlotte Ashley. Synesthetic magical powers in toddlers, and the child-rearing challenges faced by their four co-parents.
  • Blue Flowers by B.R. Sanders. A fantastical world POV a person whose time does not flow linearly; he meets his partner over and over, always remembering the first time.
  • Form B: For Circumstances Not Covered in Previous Sections by Stephanie Lai (who blogs at No Award, an engaging review & criticism blog). In a grim Australian landscape racked by storm and climate change, a daughter goes on a quest for the medicine that her parent needs.
  • The Home Study by Rick Silva. Cross-cultural adoption further afield than prospective co-mothers Ana and Witney anticipated. Wonderfully deadpan.
  • Salvage by Vivian Caethe. Alyssa, Tyria, and their family of wormhole scavengers take on gene-smugglers in this taut and suspenseful tale.
  • The Collared Signal by J.L. Forrest  Two families clash in space: the inhabitants of a biofrieighter and a dynasty of pirates. Alternating POV notches up the tension.
  • Bachelor by Jay Wilburn (also on Twitter) A sweet ghost story in which family ties persist beyond death, and older/younger kin get to talk.
  • Mission: Extraction by Mina MacLeod (also on Twitter) Military SF with a difference: mom is the ranking officer, and the mission is thoroughly unofficial, to rescue the son’s husband from unexpected alien invaders on a planetary research outpost.
  • The Girl Who Called the World by Nick Wood.  A family on the beach near Cape Town, in the twilight after the apocalypse, confront unexpected arrivals.
  • Two Hearts by Marissa James.  At the gathering of the clans, Talya turns down the brother of the one she truly wants, then joins the dance as a suitor, not a prospective bride.
  • Come Away To the Water by Shay Darrach (also on Twitter)  Teenaged Cass takes the boat out to get some thinking time, while a storm bears down on the island. Alternating POV between Cass and her mother Andrea, a rescue captain, the suspense builds as Cass finds her skills tested and her mother organizes the rescue.
  • Monsters, Beneath the Bed and Otherwise by Sarah Pinsker (also on Twitter).   Alternating viewpoint between Sophie and her co-mothers, as the family deals with school bullying, sibling conflict, workplace stress notched up by social divide created by a multitasking implant.

Cover art: Beauty to lure the eye, brains and heart to fulfill the promise

The cover designs for both of these books sold them to me: the bold yet weary presence of Alana with the tools of her trade and the galaxy behind her on the cover of Ascension, the tender couple on the cover of Fierce Family (are they future co-parents, lovers, two sisters? It’s gloriously ambiguous; the bond between the two draws the eye and implies a long foreground.

World building by suggestion

All of these stories evoke worlds, and on the reread I found myself lingering in the Elsewhere: whether post-apocalyptic Australia or South Africa, the swirling far-sub-zero atmosphere of an alien planet, the deeps of space or magical realms with a variety of climates. A short story is like a window into another world, and the worlds in these tales extend far beyond the edges of the picture plane.

They’re dense with sensory cues, superb pacing, and the unobtrusive details that summon a universe by suggestion. While each story has a clear arc, there’s just enough of an unresolved note at the end to make me yearn for whole novels in these worlds. Short story writers, like all show-biz professionals, leave the audience wanting more. Out on Twitter, I’m hanging out with SF/F poets (of whom more in a subsequent post), and learning similar things.

Look back at the verbs I’ve used here: evoke. summon. call up. As a writer, I’m reminded once more that a story is a joint performance between writer and reader. Short stories let us visit a world briefly; novels invite us to stay a while. In all of these tales, there’s a push-pull of influence between characters and world, but every single one ends on a note of transformation. Love doesn’t end the struggle, but it does make it easier when you’re taking on the forces of your world in community with others.

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