Jeff Vandermeer’s latest deserves at least a short review but it has a lot in common with Slow River, a re-issue in the SF Masterworks series, so I thought I should write about that at the same time. Slow River in turn connects to an intriguing anthology of newer short SF, so here we go.
Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer (2021, Harper Collins) was described on the back cover as, “An intellectual mindf*ck disguised as a thriller,” and by the time I finished it I was inclined to agree.
I know Vandermeer for his far-future rogue-biotech novels but Hummingbird opens in the very near future as a knotty investigation of the life and presumed death of the heiress to an industrial conglomerate.
Silvina is an elusive figure who seems to have selected our protagonist, a security analyst, to either assist or avenge her, depending on whether she is found in time. But our protagonist has traumatic secrets of her own, dating back to her childhood, so the reader is entangled with not one but two unreliable narrators, both with enemies.
Halfway through the novel, around the point where the first looks-like-SF appears, Silvina comes into focus as an eco-terrorist. Here the shadows deepen as the real subject, the impending collapse of our biosphere, takes centre stage. Hummingbird Salamander is challenging but very, very good.
The young woman at the centre of Nicola Griffith’s Slow River (1996) is the heir to an industrial empire which specialises in environmental remediation – cleaning up our industrial pollution and our sewage. One would think that is a good thing, but the company and her family are brutally amoral.
We meet Lore lying naked and bleeding on the street of a nameless northern European city after escaping from kidnappers. She is rescued by Spanner, a petty criminal barely getting by on the edges of society, and eventually works her way back up to a reckoning with her family and to the prospect of a happy future.
The science is interesting enough but it seems to me that the interpersonal relationships of a largely lesbian cast of characters are the true centre of the novel. The awards it received reflect this.
Slow River won the Lambda Award (for “the best LGBTQ books published in a given year”) in 1996 and the Nebula Award for best novel in 1997. Following the Lambda and the (then) James Tiptree Jr Award win of her debut novel Ammonite, it confirmed Griffith as an important new voice in SF. Griffiths’ biography on Wikipedia reveals, first, that Slow River was more autobiographical than one might have suspected and, second, that she has kept on writing. I have some catching up to do.
Escape Pod is a podcast launched in 2005. This collection of fifteen science fiction stories from its fan-favourite authors (Titan, 2020) was edited by Lafferty and Divya, the co-editors of the podcast. It includes work by Scalzi, Jemisin, Liu and Doctorow, all of whom I knew, and several who were new(ish) to me, of whom Beth Cato and Maurice Broaddus impressed me the most.
It’s a very strong collection, moving fluidly from science fiction to fantasy. Animals, both terran and alien, feature often, and that’s fun. Social justice is another frequent theme, and that’s good, too: at its best, SF explores our current challenges. However, social justice can veer into identity politics and a virtue-signalling over-attentiveness to gender and ethnic inclusivity.
Diversity is fine where it is essential to the story, as in Slow River, or where it’s unforced, as in Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and Neverwhere. But it can also get in the way of the story, and I think it does so in some stories in this anthology, in Morgenstern’s Starless Sea, and in several other recent genre novels which I’ve read. Perhaps agents or editors have been pushing a good idea a little too hard?