Love in the Time of Starships: Quiet Ones to Watch Out For, or the New Hard SF (Polenth Blake, Yoon Ha Lee)

  • Polenth Blake. Rainbow Lights
  • Yoon Ha Lee. Conservation of Shadows

Additional stories: Polenth Blake’s bibliography, on-line fiction by Yoon Ha Lee. The usual disclaimer: books above come from my personal collection, funded by the readaholic who is writing the review.

***

Once upon a time, there was a seven-year-old who wanted to know everything. Her favorite storybooks included George Gamow’s Mister Tompkins books, Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin, and the biography of a 2000-year-old redwood tree (which her grown-up avatar hasn’t yet found the exact name of).

Her parents let her stay up all night long when humans first walked on the moon. She watched the Apollo 11 rocket lift off upside-down, because she was hanging off the couch head to the floor. During the night, she went outside and squinted up at the moon wondering why she couldn’t see them walking around up there.

Change of reference frame was her favorite indoor sport.

She tried on a whole lot of different futures: astronaut, archaeologist, Viking raider, brain surgeon, dictator of the world (too much time at the office), monk, forensic pathologist, fighter pilot, systematic philosopher, research mathematician, anthropologist from Mars.

As a teenager, major thrills ranged from traveling at 120 mph through the Texas night (mom was driving), looking out over a college quad to realize that the trees were breathing and looking back, reading Euclid, and on the cusp of adulthood, finally comprehending the proof of Godel’s theorem in the original paper.

Obviously, this child was doomed to be a SF/F writer.

***

Both of the story collections I’m reviewing today are dear to me because they’re very close to the blood-and-bone of my own identity as a writer. Polenth Blake, trained as an ecologist, and math-and-history-obsessed Yoon Ha Lee, bring the esthetic and intellectual methods of science to the writing of science fiction and fantasy. This is not only the New Hard Science Fiction (or Fantasy), but the Real kind: fiction written using the reference frames of the biological and mathematical sciences.

In Polenth Blake’s story collection, not only do you change worlds from one story to the next, but the POV characters might be very different species. From robot subs (“The Squid Who Lived Forever”) to sentient scorpions (“The Dragonfly People”) to vampire ice cream vendors (“Midnight Ice Cream”), from the intelligent insects who will inherit the earth after us (“Beetle Species of the Burnt Coast”), to automata on an expedition ship trying to figure out if it’s time to wake up the humans (“Whirligig Fingers and Globular Thumbs”), you’re thrown into a very different point of view and left to figure things out. No info-dumps here, no mad scientist in front of the blackboard giving you the plans to the submarine. Words don’t mean what you think they do; after a few scenes, “Rules for Safe Duck Keeping” is fairly clearly not about the feathered friends we know and love.

My partner and I like to play a game that asks “who’s it about?” POV different species, such as the tube-worms (“all hail the holy vent”) and various parasites (“inside of whom did you meet your mate?”), or insects (“describe the antennae of the Supreme Being”). We’re playing it for fun, but Polenth Blake does it in deadpan earnest, with tales that entertain and disturb, sometimes at the same time.

In very few of these tales does gender sit still, nor does genre; “Whirligig Fingers and Globular Thumbs,” for one outstanding example, changes genre (horror? humor? adventure?) depending upon frame of reference.

***

Yoon Ha Lee writes some of the spikiest and sexiest math-SF I’ve yet encountered, in sleek prose that dances on the razor’s edge between poetry and prose, and on the genre frontier between fantasy and science fiction. “The Shadow Postulates” is the first story I’ve ever read that captures the sheer erotic thrill of axiomatics: ghosts, sword-dancing, the bones of logic moving under the muscle of mathematics, the drama of the long-dead all come together in a wonderfully dramatic tale that limns a passionate scholar in an alien world.

The knives are far from hidden here; much of the sparkle in these tales is sunlight on razor-blades or drawn swords, whether it’s weaponized origami (“Ghostweight”), a chess-match down branching alternate timelines between two cadets (“The Black Abacus”), or an axiomatics of space opera (“A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel”) which is simultaneously the biography of a brilliant array of possible civilizations and a rich tarot deck of writer’s prompts. The author provides a lovely set of notes in the back of the collection about the sources that inspired these tales, from Korean naval battles to non-Euclidean geometry, from Sumerian tales of the underworld to quantum physics and anime. (Necromancy and giant mecha come together brilliantly in “The Bones of Giants.”)

***

Polenth Blake and Yoon Ha Lee take their knowledge of biology, mathematics, military history, gender in the human and nonhuman worlds, and place their readers inside it. Think about your first time reading a novel out of another culture (many Americans would cite their first Russian novel): no explanation, this is just how things work, figure it out on your own. Don’t think Leaden Age hardSF white dudebro engineers, but more your gender-fluid blue-haired cousin who reads real analysis and evolutionary biology because they’re the best Trip of all.

Both of these story collections hold up very well to rereading, in fact require it, in much the same way great poetry does. These collections are modest in physical scale, but each story opens a portal to a magical and terrifying new universe. Like the best poets, Polenth Blake and Yoon Ha Lee create whole worlds by implication, with axiomatic wit and dark whimsy.

This novelist-to-the-bone truly envies their graceful and ruthless economy, and looks forward to upcoming work.

***

Note: Polenth Blake’s Sunstruck, a detective novel with a Bigfoot protagonist, will be reviewed in an upcoming Love in the Time of Starships post, “Humor, Horror, and the Mystery of It All.”

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