January is the month of new beginnings. This is the time when people look toward the future with hope and bright intentions. Science fiction has long been lauded as the first step to imagining our collective future, be it with technology, arts, or health advancements. This month, our reviewers examined science fiction novels written by authors from underrepresented groups. The contributions of people from minority communities to science fiction are often overlooked, but incredibly impactful, nonetheless. The books reviewed this month highlight marginalized writers who have influenced the genre, adding to the possibilities of our society’s future.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Reviewed by Chih Wang
The previous ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire from Lsel Station has suddenly died. The small but independent mining station hastily dispatches his replacement, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, to the heart of the galactic Empire. Upon arrival, Mahit realizes that his death was more than just accidental, and if she is not careful, she will be dead too.
The Hugo Award-winning novel is a mix of fish-out-of-water, whodunit, and space opera. Against a backdrop of political intrigue and civil unrest, Mahit must quickly figure out whom she can trust, who murdered her predecessor, and what her predecessor was doing that brought about his demise, all the while protecting the interests of her home. The mystery keeps the audience reading as the odds against Mahit stack high. The years spent studying and dreaming about Teixcalaan, where poetry is the height of civilized society, have not fully prepared Mahit for encrypted messages based on poetic ciphers and political propaganda recited in three-line stanzas. To help guide her, the Lsel surgeons neurologically implanted in her the previous ambassador’s imago, but the copy of his memories are fifteen years outdated.
The worldbuilding is an interesting look at how a dominant power exerts social, cultural, ideological, and economic influences on others. The cultures feel real thanks to unexpected details like how a smile functions differently in Teixcalaan than Lsel, and in larger issues such as whether it is right to neurologically alter a person. Compelling arguments for either ideological side illustrate how both can be considered moral and challenges us to see outside our own perspectives. The ending is satisfying but leaves enough plot unresolved for the sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, that is due to come out March 2021.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Reviewed by Leslie Gonzalez
This World Fantasy Award-winning, coming-of-age novel is set in the indiscernible future. The protagonist, Onyesonwu, or Onye, is prophesied to stop a dystopian version of the Holy Crusades and dismantle the violence and dehumanization against race, gender, and sexuality. The reader is presented with strong themes relating to genocide, such as weaponized rape, slavery, incest, and torture, balanced with empowered feminism. The story is told by Onye, a woman of mixed origins, who is seen as a witch or an evil spirit by her community. The reader sees the world as Onye does, and not through the lens of her oppressors. And no matter what others may think of her, Onye is no evil spirit. She is unapologetically defiant, emotional, brash, and ambitious—an individual who challenges society and refuses to conform to the social customs assigned by her gender and race.
Okorafor’s style is direct, and carries a fairytale-like quality, making the tale a cautionary one, urging the reader to understand that ignorance and turning a blind eye has its consequences and that fear is as corrosive as a raging war, as well as to never belittle what is misunderstood. The novel solely encapsulates Onye’s experience as an autobiography. Her account parallels the book’s theme between life and death and Onye’s ability to cross between the two planes of existence.
The autobiographical structure of Who Fears Death makes the tale a soft science fiction choice with heavy exposition. The story being a main drive over world building means it is more suitable for lovers of Victor LaValle or Octavia E. Butler. Daring, Who Fears Death takes the reader on a courageous journey of self-discovery and female empowerment and humanizes death, giving it a chance to provide a refreshing perspective for its readers.
Goddess in the Machine by Lora Beth Johnson
Reviewed by Madeline Wentworth
Goddess in the Machine starts with a basic sci-fi premise—select people from twenty-second century Earth are moving to another planet and will be cryogenically frozen for one hundred years during that time—but quickly takes its own course when Andra wakes up and everything is wrong. She’s alone, in the desert, and has been asleep for a thousand years. She’s greeted by the bastard prince, Zhade, and learns the people view her as a Goddess. Andra tries to adjust and play the part while plotting to find a way back to Earth. This is a refreshing take on a familiar science fiction trope.
Johnson’s world is entertaining in how it blends sci-fi and fantasy. Eerensed, the capital where most of the novel takes place, seems unadvanced, but Andra’s narration reveals that all of the technology which existed during the twenty-second century is now viewed as magic. Most of the technology has evolved into something she understands but cannot use the way that she remembers. Former robots are viewed as angels and can only be spoken to by “sorcers” and goddesses. The most interesting component is the Eerensedians’ speech, a dialect that combines modern-day slang and strange grammar rules. At first, it’s strange to read, but through chapters from Zhade’s point of view, the reader quickly becomes just as fluent.
Most of the cast are implied to be people of color, especially those from the twenty-second century, including Andra, who is mixed and also chubby, a refreshing change for a YA novel. The novel’s political intrigue, deaths, romance, quite a bit of betrayal, and twists readers may or may not see coming serve to generate enough excitement to leave them anticipating its sequel, Devil in the Device, which will be released this year.
Voice to Books is a monthly short list of reviews from a variety of voices curated by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana. Like the authors and their characters, each of our reviewers comes from a marginalized or underrepresented group. Interested in contributing a review to Voice to Books? Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.