The Future Alternative Past: Nature’s way of telling you

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.

As I write this I’m in pain. I’m a migraineuse, a migraine sufferer, a distinction I’d been told I would lose when I hit menopause. Alas, that has proven untrue. Migraines remain one of my chronic companions, along with fibromyalgia, arthritis, bursitis, glaucoma, and, most likely, a few others conditions I’m too cowardly to have diagnosed. So I know a bit about how pain works, firsthand.

Even before all these ills beset me, pain exercised a deep fascination. I don’t identify that fascination as kink-oriented; expeditions into BDSM have left the silt of my sexuality unperturbed. It has a much tighter connection, IMO, to my stubborn willfulness. As a nine-year-old I walked barefoot down gravel driveways to train myself to be a secret agent. As a 15-year-old I pored over Amnesty International texts to study the best ways to resist torture.

SFFH deals with pain by transforming it, curing it, inflicting it, questioning it, and cutting it off. Way back in 1950, the mighty Cordwainer Smith wrote about the suicide-inducing Great Pain of Space in his retro-Hugo winner “Scanners Live in Vain.” Neurological amputation produced the zombie-like crews who could withstand the agony of interstellar flight. More recently, Kelley Eskridge’s 1995 short story “Alien Jane” depicts researchers experimenting on a woman who is immune to pain due to a genetic condition — one that’s rare but does actually occur in real life.

Then there’s the deliberate infliction of pain, which can be found in myriad SFFH works. The most disturbing example I’ve come across so far is the torture of innocent elephants in the Nick Harkaway novel Angelmaker. Infliction of pain is rife in horror, of course; pain is a big part of the subgenre’s point. From gore-dripping slashers by well-known authors like Richard Laymon, to the revulsion and body horror I serve up in “Queen of Dirt,” to the heartrending anguish inflicted on his characters in Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America,” these are not feel good stories.

Fantasy’s pain can stem from spells, as in the juju worked on Cocoa in Gloria Naylor’s novel Mama Day or the menstrual cramps a witch inflicts on the men of Ulster in the Irish epic The Tain. On the other hand it can be the goal of a magical cure, as in the pangs suffered by Michael Moorcock’s albino anti-hero Elric of Melniboné.

Pain can also be funny, as I’ve learned while figuring out ways to post about mine on social media. I make up hyperbole-laden stories about smashing giant pumpkins with my ass to account for seemingly random flare-ups, inviting readers laugh at my condition with me. But my favorite example of the humor intrinsic in pain is Terry Bisson’s wicked short story “The Old Rugged Cross,” and its understated account of the absurdities of injustice uses pretty much the opposite of this technique.

Basically, though, pain tells us what’s wrong, as Alien Jane explains to her story’s narrator. SFFH can do a lot with that formula, including making the source of pain the variable, or changing what a given pain’s message means by “wrongness” it warns us of, or exploring the way a pain gets its message across: naturally, supernaturally, artificially, or by its total absence.

Recent books recently read

“Maybe blogoirs are a thing now,” muses the author in his introduction to his new collection Peter Watts Is an Angry Sentient Tumor (Tachyon), trying to fathom how it came about. And how well it will do. Somewhat wistfully comparing his popularity with that of fellow SFist-cum-blog-post-republisher John Scalzi (“He’s so, so — cheerful. How do I compete with that?”), Watts wonders if maybe he should tone down his “fucking profanity.”

Signs point to “No.” Profanity is completely appropriate when examining the economic equations that keep cops shooting unarmed black folks. Or when acknowledging the deliberate ignorance with which religious fundamentalists respond to logical arguments against their beliefs. Or when adding up the costs of blithely ignoring the doomful extrapolations SFFH offers concerning global pandemics and climate change. Illustrations in the style of caution-sign icons, at times grim, at times hilarious, mostly both, accompany fifty essays in which Watts does all of the above and more. Like cheering on the Zika virus and experimenting with LSD. (Not at the same time.)

Peter Watts has written and published a dozen brilliant books; Riot Baby ( is Tochi Onyebuchi’s incandescent adult debut. In his afterword he thanks award-winning author NK Jemisin for teaching him “how to write angry, the type of angry that still leaves room for love,” but Onyebuchi’s earlier short stories and young adult novels shine with this same hard-edged glory. Riot Baby follows a brother and sister from the inferno of 1992’s Rodney King-inspired insurrection to the freezer-burnt, weed-fumigated stairwells of Harlem tenements, through Rikers Island and other deliberately dehumanizing prisons, to a near-future of “Sponsored” half-way house communities and mood-regulating implants: Ella discovers as a child that she has magical mental powers which demand discipline, and when she retreats into the desert to get them under control Kev, left behind, runs afoul of White America’s “justice” system. His release on parole in 2022 dumps him into the sort of plausible nightmare we see developing around us daily. “Anger is an energy,” declared ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon, and Onyebuchi harnesses this energy to warming and clarifying effect.

Some upcoming cons

Several conventions are clustered around Valentine’s Weekend this year. Take your pick of Greater Seattle’s Foolscap, the convention that creates programming on demand; Eastern Washington’s Radcon, a nicely mixed bag of hallway parties, school visits, gaming, and panels; or my venue of choice, the under-new-management African American Multimedia Conference in Oakland, California. Rebooting a festival started over twenty-five years ago, organizer Sumiko Saulson is bringing together African-descended musicians, authors, and film artists to show rather than tell the world how fabulous we are. I’ll be making closing remarks, tryna keep up with horror queen and poet Linda Addison, who’ll set the celebration’s tone with her keynote.