by Helen Patterson
I’ve started reading more speculative fiction recently, and I’m not alone. Speculative fiction is hard to define, but this umbrella term generally refers to any fiction about a world different from our own. These alternate worlds can be set in the past, the future, or a world that seems like our current one—until it doesn’t. Within the last decade, speculative fiction has become increasingly popular among both literary and mainstream readers and writers. The rise of speculative fiction has coincided with an increased demand for diversity in writing, leading to an explosion of creative new stories.
New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by writer Nisi Shawl, is one of the anthologies that’s come out of this growing demand for diverse speculative fiction. The title refers to a quote from the inimitable Octavia Butler, which is included in the frontmatter of the anthology: “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” As promised, each piece in New Suns glows with its own inner radiance.
One of the best things about anthologies is their ability to help us discover new writers. My two favorite stories in this one were by writers I had never read before. “The Shadow We Cast Through Time” by Indrapramit Das is one of the most original combinations of dark fairytale and sci-fi I’ve read. The story is told from the perspective of Surya, a descendent of human colonists. Her world contains demons, mind-altering spores, and hagtowers—living structures made from the bodies of the dead. In Surya’s world, the demons, the hagtowers, and even death are not feared; they are part of the place, and the humans who live there accept and mythologize them. When it is time to die, most humans willingly walk to the hagtowers, ready to become part of these structures. Surya does not dread death because “all worlds need death if humans must tread on them” (182). For me, the most alien part of the story isn’t the setting but this attitude toward death. So much of contemporary American culture is obsessed with avoiding or delaying dying; it was refreshing to read a story in which death, though not desired, is accepted more readily as a natural process. I’m afraid I’m simplifying the story too much, but I don’t want to give anything more away. You will have to read it. Das writes with lyrical, almost hypnotic, prose, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.
In my other favorite story, “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath” by Darcie Little Badger, Kelsey inhabits a world like ours but with one key difference: when humans or animals die, their “last breaths,” or “shimmers,” are released. No one in the story knows where the last breaths disappear to, but most last breaths instinctively escape to the sky and float upwards, out of sight. Kelsey makes her living by working with her own pet shimmer, Pal—the last breath of her sheepdog—to round up new shimmers and help them float away. Shimmers are naturally lighter than air, so Kelsey’s job is usually simple. Pal roams buildings where people or animals have passed away and herds new, confused shimmers into a room with a window. She then opens the window and releases them into the air. Unfortunately for Kelsey, some breaths break the rules, cease floating, and become burdened breaths. Reader beware: “the act that made a last breath burdened was so terrible the word ‘murder’ didn’t do it justice” (259). The story has dark moments, but the overall tone is light and gently humorous.
Every piece in this anthology is expertly crafted and offers new perspectives. That being said, my other favorites from this collection are “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” by Tobias S. Buckell, “The Fine Print” by Chinelo Onwualu, “The Robots of Eden” by Anil Menon, and “Harvest” by Rebecca Roanhorse.
In the afterword to New Suns, Shawl offers advice to anyone who enjoyed the anthology and wishes to read more diverse voices and perspectives: “Would you like more of what you’ve read here? Wider constellations, greater galaxies of original speculative fiction by people of color? Then seek us out. Spread the word. Wish on us, reach for us, and yes, let us gather together in the deep, dark nurseries of stars. Let us congregate. This is how new suns are born” (274). I intend to follow Shawl’s advice and discover more work by these writers, and I know that other readers and writers will do the same, especially in these uncertain times, as a pandemic rages around us. In the worst of times, we can acknowledge suffering and the severity of our problems even as we let stories expand our horizons and keep our minds open and curious.
Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.