The Future Alternative Past: If you lived here, you'd be home by now

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.

Soon I’ll embark on a bunch of plane trips: eight in the next seven months. Connie Willis remarked in her time travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog that no one from any era is satisfied with their own era’s transportation methods, and I know that’s true for me. The hurry-up-and-wait necessitated by departure and arrival schedules, the invasiveness of TSA screening procedures, cramped seats — I turn to SFFH’s visions of travel for relief, or at least variety.

Ray Vukcevich’s 2002 short story “In the Flesh” cranks up the absurdity of current security theater performances just enough for delicious but slightly awkward irony. (Warning: its accompanying illustration may be NSFW.) Looking into the future many believe is science fiction’s rightful turf, we find authors imagining flying cars and spaceships. Though they’re more evident in film and television than in written formats, flying cars have long been one of the genre’s staple props. They’ve yet to become a staple consumer item in reality, however. And space ships? Regarding them we’ve regressed. They used to actually exist, and now they’re little more than presidential wet dreams.

But when it comes to imaginary vehicles the leader of the free world has a myriad to choose among. From the sentient, planet-sized, interstellar craft of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series to the darkly echoing, utilitarian Martian ferries of Richard Morgan’s Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Thirteen, there’s quite a range. Hard science fiction is also used to addressing space ship practicalities such as power sources (solar sails, for instance, á la Clarke’s “Sunjammer”), or the many years of most voyages’ duration (generation ships, for instance, á la Rivers Solomons’ An Unkindness of Ghosts).

Not everyone expects such down-to-earth considerations in their SFFH, though, as one author’s recent remark about “traveling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots” indicates. And of course the imaginative genres can oblige. But even when writers draw on standard story furniture such as force beams, the trickier corollaries of these axiomatic elements of the SF universe come under scrutiny. Exactly how do “transporters” such as Star Trek’s work? By destroying the original of a person and reconstituting her as a copy? “Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly explores the rather gnarly ethical problems that solution brings up.

Fantasy also transports people instantaneously — magically! And it presents plenty of alternate means of travel as well, from rides on dragonback to steampunk’s ubiquitous dirigibles to shortcuts through Fairyland like the one taken by the protagonists of Zen Cho’s latest novel, The True Queen.

As for Horror’s connection to this month’s topic, what’s usually involved is travel without warning to a lesser known, more troubling land, as in Marc Laidlaw’s “Cell Call.” Sometimes it’s the land of the dead; sometimes it’s a hazard-ridden mindscape, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (which Kij Johnson responded to in a tone of feminist insouciance with her novella “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe”).

Where do you want to go today?” asked the 1990s Microsoft advertising slogan. Or where would you rather not go? One way or another, SFFH will take you there.

Recent books recently read

Amnesty (Tor), the third and final book in Lara Elena Donnelly’s ravishing Amberlough Dossier is thicker than the first two. This is a good thing. Neither the author nor her audience want to reach the end of the decadent adventures of Aristide (drag queen, smuggler, and sometime revolutionary) and his lover Cyril (collaborator and spy). But with the Nazi-like Ospies finally out of power and Ari’s bomb-wielding comrade Cordelia martyred and memorialized, with Cyril’s diplomat sister free from the fascist former government’s manipulation and Cyril himself returned from years of imprisonment and torture, there are only a few more escapes to engineer, a few more dangers to flaunt. Our louche heroes, rightly worse for many years’ wear, deserve a conclusion. Donnelly provides them with one that’s satisfactory as well as plausible, but may still provoke re-readings. After all, how many multivolume secondary world genderqueer espionage epics are out there? Not a lot. Not nearly enough.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Vintage), for instance, is unlike the Amberlough books except for two things: it messes around with gender, and it’s delicious. Its author, Andrea Lawlor, set their tale of a shapeshifting twink’s lesbian love affair firmly in the U.S. of the 1990s. The only espionage hero Paul Polydoris indulges in is disguising himself as “Polly,” a woman complete with vagina, clitoris, urethra, and g-spot — but no menstrual period. Yet even while crashing the TERF-identified Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and rapturously surrendering to couplehood with a butch dyke, internally Paul never switches pronouns. He consistently identifies as male, redefining and complicating the concept of “masculinity.” For those of us hooked on the cognitive estrangement of SFFH this is an alluring narrative cocktail. Frustratingly for genre fans, though, Paul fails to uncover the cause of and mechanism behind his self-generated sex changes — in fact, he barely tries. And that’s how, ultimately, this book earns its label as “Literary Fiction” — by falling short of speculative fiction’s more rigorous standards. Nonetheless, the fall is sweet fun. Jane, Paul’s best friend, always feels better “when she [has] brought herself around to a critique of the heteropatriarchy.” Me too.

Couple of upcoming cons

The finalists for the 2019 Locus Awards have been announced! Once again they’re being presented in dear old Seattle during the fabulous Locus Awards Weekend, which is sort of like a scaled down sercon, but with Hawaiian shirts and donuts. Readings and presentations and workshops, in other words, plus Connie Willis describing — in an intimate setting — how it feels to be bitten by a bat. Also, there will be at least two plastic bananas.

If you’d rather avoid the bananas you may want to swallow dissatisfaction with today’s transportation options and fly over to South Africa for Geekfest 2019. Confusingly, there’s a similarly-named one-day event held in South Jersey, but the Pretorian Geekfest lasts an entire weekend and promises cosplay, LARPing, and celebrations of geek culture (that being part of the con’s name) and Japanese culture (that being the con’s theme this year). And also, presumably, their overlap.