Future Alternative Past: Kicking it around

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.

And now the sports

The late, great Gardner Dozois inscribed my copy of Future Sports (one of the dozens of SFFH anthologies he edited and co-edited) thusly: “For Nisi, who would make a great future sport herself!” I miss him so much. But yes, this was a joke, because I have always been such a nonstarter. My father’s sarcastic nickname for me as a teenager was “Coordinated.”

The stories in Future Sports include brief but pointed examinations of all the ways chance and athleticism will change the world to come, and be changed by it. Nerds like you and me (Michael Swanwick and Howard Waldrop, to name a couple) contributed tales of boxing zombies — okay, “postanthropic biological resources” — and other skiffy twists on the subject. And that sensawunda thing SFFH is so famed for? Kim Stanley Robinson’s narrator rhapsodizes about the beauty of playing baseball on Mars: “the diamond about covered the entire visible world.”

Michael Bishop’s classic Brittle Innings, another SFFH baseball yarn, takes place back on Earth, in the mid-20th-century Southern US. But one of its main characters seems to have been assembled in a lab rather than born.

Turning to other sports and more recent publications, we’re treated to the awesomeness of 17776, or What Football Will Look Like in the Future, which depicts a mutating array of structures, rules, and fields for the game, all evolved in response to humanity suddenly becoming immortal and invulnerable. The viewpoint characters are three robots, interplanetary probes battered into sentience by repeated exposure to Earth-based broadcasts. Their story is told via a wild mix of media: comics-like text balloons, GIFs, still images, and videos. As the person whose Facebook post first exposed me to 17776 wrote, “What did I just see?”

Henry Lien’s Middle Grade novel Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword doesn’t just posit the sfnal time-warping of one sport. It mashes up competitive ice skating with martial arts to create a new one: “Wu Liu.” And The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord centers on an intrastellar pastime called “wallrunning,” a parkour-ish team sport enlivened by unpredictable changes in the course’s artificial gravity.

Further examples of jock-centric SFFH are out there, I’m sure, even excluding the plethora of stories focusing on board games and RPGs and some folks’ nostalgia for video arcades. Stretching the definition of sports to include those would mean I’d get to mention Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and Iain M. Banks’s The Player of Games. Which I’ve managed to do anyway, you’ll notice. And why not? It was fun. The ludic impulse is one we learn about by following it — back through time, or forward, or along any of the branching possibilities and impossibilities fiction lets us explore.

Recent books recently read

The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Tachyon), the shortest and latest novel from Canadian Peter Watts, is as brilliant and enticingly acute as any of his earlier and longer work. Running with the common SF trope of a ship traveling the galaxy at sub-light speeds to set up gates enabling instantaneous transport, Watts bursts through accepted story outlines to tell us what life is like for those aboard. Cryogenic sleep shifts last hundreds of centuries. The mission, after millions and millions and millions of years, goes on under the implacable and inescapable eye of an artificial intelligence tasked with keeping the crew’s nose to an eternal grindstone. How can its favorite human Sunday Ahzmundin and a few thousand others possibly manage to rebel against their superhuman supervisor? With skin-creeping tension, sharply realistic detail, and action moving fast as thought, Watts shows us.

Armistice (Tor) is Lara Elena Donnelly’s second novel, the sequel to her award-nominated debut Amberlough. Though it’s evident there will be at least a third book in this series set in a 1930s-ish, Cabaret-like fantasy milieu, Armistice suffers none of the weaknesses usually inherent in literature’s middle kids. Instead of a conglomeration of thin, unsatisfying scenes meant to serve as a bridge between the overarching tale’s explosive beginning and its no doubt spectacular end, Donnelly gives us a gorgeous book about bridges — metaphorical ones: distasteful but pragmatic political alliances, undying loves, all the connections humans make as we find our way through the world. A few favorite characters from Amberlough reappear, such as Aristide, the flamboyant nightclub emcee and drug-runner now unwillingly enmeshed in illicit gun dealing; and Cordelia, guttersnipe stripper-turned-terrorist. Conspicuous by his absence is Cyril, a sometime spy for the Nazi-esque Ospies and Aristide’s presumed-dead darling, but Cyril’s sister Lillian ably steps up to fill his role. Her close physical resemblance to her brother shocks and disturbs Aristide; her similarly double-dealing relationship with her Ospie employers hinges on the son they hold hostage. Various rumors, rescues, and releases coincide toward the book’s end — always believably, always unpredictably, and always in a superbly written, Art Deco-inspired atmosphere of louche extravagance.

What if a proponent of mainstream literature decided to write a horror novel? Julia Fine’s What Should Be Wild (Harper) seems to approach that genre in the same spirit in which Margaret Atwood took on dystopian science fiction when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale: rigorously conscious analysis of its underlying psychology combined with willful ignorance of her story’s literary forebears and the efforts of contemporaries along identical lines. Linking female sexuality to the concept of untamed woods and tracing its unfair hampering back to a 6th century patriarchalist invasion of Britain, Fine switches between the narrative of a “good girl” struggling not to abuse her literal power of bestowing life and death, and vignettes focusing on her ancestresses the woods has claimed as its own. The novel’s imagery is visceral, but the feckless protagonist’s passivity leeches it of strength.

Couple of upcoming cons

For years, con going cognoscenti have been informing me I really ought to head to Boston to attend Readercon. Welp, this year I’ll be there for sure, because I’m one of two living Guests of Honor. The other is the redoubtable Ken Liu, and the dead (or more politely, memorial) GOH is my idol E. Nesbit. Besides us official big deals, unofficial ones such as Samuel R. Delany and Ellen Datlow will be on hand to celebrate the genre’s literary aspects. Which is what Readercon is about, in case the name didn’t clue you in: books, magazines, and texts of all sorts — the power of narrativity.

Closer to home, Portland’s steampunky GEAR Con also has a specialized focus — but based on content rather than format. 2018’s theme is “the Great War.” World War I took place in the interstices between the Victorian era commonly associated with the steampunk subgenre and the later, Art Deco-influenced period referenced by Amberlough, Armistice, and that whole dieselpunk movement. SoGEAR Con’s usual “adorable chaos” (as one frequent attendee describes the Tesla-coil demos, mad tea parties, and other activities) may have a more militaristic bent this year. Streamlined bumptiousness, anyone?