Stories We Love
N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is the opening story in the author’s short story collection, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month. The story introduces the collection, as does the book’s title, as a work of fundamentally utopian sff.
“The Ones Who Stay and Fight” was written in conversation with “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” [pdf], Ursula K. Le Guin’s own challenge to utopia, published in 1973. “Omelas” has been discussed extensively (a recent article on “Omelas” and its utilitarian implications for our own times can be found here) and this review will side-step a comprehensive comparison of “Omelas” and “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”. Instead, the focus here is on Jemisin’s story, its conception of systemic violence, its implicit sense of justice and hope, and how Jemisin’s vision applies to the fight against climate change.
Some readers familiar with both stories may have hoped that N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” would reject the “necessary” violence of the previous story. Readers could have been comforted, after all, by a utopia that harms no one and specifically rejects violence perpetrated against innocents. But both Le Guin’s and Jemisin’s stories contain harm to a child. In Jemisin’s story, the child is harmed as a side-effect of preserving utopia. But rather than remain in isolation, as in “Omelas,” Jemisin’s child is cared for — and ultimately educated to become a part of the community mechanism which preserves utopia in Um-Helat. The important distinction between Le Guin’s story and Jemisin’s is that Jemisin’s system protects Um-Helat from inequality and injustice, whereas Le Guin’s system is a quintessential example of these things.
Rejection vs. Revolution
Le Guin is lauded for complex social commentary in fiction and for her speeches calling for systemic change, but “Omelas” is a product of its time in that its politics suggests an ability to walk away from the injustices of society. To reject one’s culpability in the system and live separately from that which ultimately benefits us. Of course, if all residents of Omelas walked away, the system would collapse. But within the scope of the story, no mass movement is evident and the child continues to be tortured.
Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” then, is a story for this time. The ethic of the story is that one cannot absolve oneself of the responsibility for the system under which one lives, and while one might not be able to change it, one must stay engaged in one’s community and fight for change. What does this fighting look like? In “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” the child who is harmed through the loss of her father is tended to, educated, and initiated into the enforcement wing of the society which protects Um-Helat from anti-utopian changes. The girl grows up as a powerful figure standing between Um-Helat and the creeping ideologies of injustice. The girl, rather than being locked powerless in a closet, is given agency to address that which harmed her by fighting against its root cause.
While the figure of the child in Le Guin’s story remains isolated and without hope for a different life, the child in “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” remains entrenched in her community. For the child, the community will never be quite the same, never again a perfect utopia. She lost her father and through this loss learned of violence in Um-Helat of which she was previously unaware. But change in Jemisin’s story comes not through a rejection and a walking away, but through the care of one’s community and becoming an integral part of its protection.
Jemisin’s Utopia and Climate Change
While Jemisin’s story does not specifically address climate change, it presents a model of address to any encroaching injustice. Climate change will affect future generations more than most people alive today. Those of us enjoying the benefits of a Western, fossil-fuel economy are living at the grace of a system which keeps a child in the closet — millions of children. The time for walking away from the problem and absolving ourselves of guilt is over. In opposition to this idea of rejection and isolation (and through these things, absolution), Jemisin’s story shows us how to care for the future. It is an imperfect process. It is a process that does not, and cannot, avoid harm for all. But working toward the holistic justice of engaged community and relationship as a way to care for the future is humanity’s best hope.
Stories We Love
Osahon Ize-Iyamu’s “More Sea Than Tar” in Reckoning 3 is about a Nigerian family struggling against the currents of modern life in a flooded and disintegrating town. The main character, Uti, must navigate opposing family dynamics in order to find his own way of living in a new world.
Uti’s father provides the main source of tension, which appears from the first lines of the story. Uti relates that his father is tired of being hampered by the constant presence of flood waters, that he wants to go out in his canoe and “be above the water” so that they all can be “finally in control of [their] bodies.” What Uti soon learns is that his father believes that leaving their flooded community for the “open sea” of other towns or cities is not only an “adventure” but a way of reconnecting with society that he feels has left them behind.
Joseph, Uti’s brother, is sceptical of their father’s plans to integrate into a more materially prosperous future. But Joseph is invested in technological means of advancement and adaptation. Specifically, Joseph is excited about how technology like “oxygen suits” and “decontamination pods” can improve their lifestyles, given that the flood waters seem unlikely to abate.
Perhaps with feeling similar to Uti’s death-obsession, Uti’s mother often confines herself to her room. She refuses to respond to her husband’s ideas. When the three men of the household are heading out in the canoe, Uti’s mother provides them with coats, boots, and umbrellas — the tools they need to survive the burgeoning waters, but which are insufficient. In the course of the story, two more essential tools appear: Uti trades his umbrella for a spoon, and Uti’s father acquires a gun.
These two tools — the spoon and the gun — signal the story’s resolution long before its end. This review will not further expand upon the course of events triggered by the gun. The spoon, however, provides a subtle resonance whenever it appears. It is significant that Uti rejects the practical umbrella for a spoon that seems to have no place in his adventures with his father and brother. But the spoon provides comfort when the “adventure” intensifies; Uti caresses the round edges of the spoon in moments of insecurity.
The spoon, ultimately, serves a similar purpose to the gun, but the intended use of the tool is not lost. When Uti returns home at the end of the story, it is a return to the comfort and nourishment of the home. Even when that home is falling apart. It is also a return that requires the resourcefulness and adaptability that the spoon signifies. Osahon Ize-Iyamu’s “More Sea Than Tar” suggests, then, that there is no single path to flourishing in a climate changed world. We cannot depend on isolationism, technological fixes, or even boldness. We must measure these things out with equal portions of comfort and community connection. In this way we make a home of imperfect environments.
Stories We Love
Tlotlo Tsamaase’s novelette “Eclipse our Sins” in December’s issue of Clarkesworld is a dense and lyrical story in which a young girl searches for the reason her family members are falling ill in a world wherein Mother Earth seeks revenge for a multitude of sins committed against her.
Tsamaase’s future is one in which the effects of “sins” are tangible and are explicitly connected to local ecologies. For example, xenophobic and sexist thoughts emerge into the air as smog, contributing to ecological destabilization. The protagonist, and many others in the story, wears a respirator which protects her from the material effects of anti-social elements; but requiring this protection is a burden on the poor who must not only regularly replace their respirators to survive, but are also dependent on proprietary medicines.
The fragility of the human body — as evidenced by the dependence on not only technology but also basic hygiene products and food, and the rate at which humans fall ill — is connected to the fragility of the Earth after climate change. Though Mother Earth is in a diminished state, she emerges in this story as a force to be feared in the ruthlessness with which she enacts revenge. This is a revenge that is paralleled by the ruthlessness with which humans have pursued their own interests at the expense of the ecosystems in which they exist.
The personification of the Earth is a fascinating framing device in “Eclipse our Sins.” The story opens with a prayer which invokes a distant goddess figure and makes the dire violence of the world clear. The reader gets the sense that desperate cries to “Mother Earth, Mama Earth, Mmê Earth” will not be heard or answered — that the disconnect that humans have created between themselves and the environment has theological weight. But when Mother Earth finally answers the protagonist at the end of the story and a new incantation to a new future emerges, the heady result of this prayer makes tangible both dread and hope.
Tsamaase’s novelette depicts a future that is by no means an easy one, and this story certainly stands as a warning, pointing to the frayed connections caused by both social ills and ecological ones. But the reader comes away from this story, too, with the idea that along with the rising flood waters that are called forth in the story’s final lines there is justice — and through that justice, transformation.
“Eclipse our Sins” is a complex story and we’ve barely scraped the surface in this review. If you have any thoughts about it, we’d love to read your comments on this post, through our contact page, or using the social media buttons below.
Books We Love
P. Djèlí Clark’s The Black God’s Drums is fast-paced and fun, with characters that play off each other’s quick-witted banter. The world created in this novella is a slightly off-kilter version of our own, with recognizable politics (where the bad guys are Confederates singing songs about Andrew Jackson) juxtaposed with airships and mind-numbing “drapeto gas” which keeps a slave economy running after emancipation.
The part of this book that is so interesting to us is the orisha magic wielded by main characters Jacqueline (or Creeper) and Anne-Marie. This magic is what makes the book fantasy rather than alternate history, and it is also the element which connects the narrative so strongly to place. The Black God’s Drums is set in New Orleans and of the city Creeper has this to say:
The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land.
Creeper — who has the goddess Oya residing with her and can, through Oya, sometimes channel storms — is a kind of extension of the power that Oya demonstrated in a “tempête noire” that flooded New Orleans and the surrounding lowlands. That a catastrophic storm is Creeper’s origin story, and the origin story of the New Orleans that P. Djèlí Clark creates in the novella, suggests deep-rooted connections between the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the future of the descendants of those slaves, and the ways in which air, land, and water are implicated in that historic atrocity which continues in altered forms. Creeper’s power, and also that of the airship captain Anne-Marie (who harbours Oya’s sister-goddess Oshun), is the power of “Lafrik” enacted on American soil; and the book uses orisha magic to make tangible the idea that slavery has still-unimagined consequences, consequences which are linked to land, air, and water as Creeper’s maman said.
In our own world, this connection is, of course, true. The slave labour of kidnapped Black people is the foundation of Western development and Western accumulation of wealth, both of which are responsible for the West’s still-rising CO2 emissions and the changed climate which we will inflict upon the world. But we mustn’t imagine that the increased storms, flooding, and heatwaves are the goddesses of “Lafrik” taking their revenge as they might in The Black God’s Drums. No, we must acknowledge that the effects of atmospheric warming that become more frequent and more extreme every year are the fault of no one and no thing but us and a culture that demands gratification and comfort at any cost — even at the cost of any future comforts.
Books We Love
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander was a favourite in 2018. It is an alternate history intertwining the true story of the Radium Girls with the equally true story of the electrocution of Topsy the elephant. To these truths, the novellette adds elephant mythology and diplomatic negotiations between what remains of humanity and the emerging sentient elephant race. The rage that propels the former two narratives sometimes results in the overshadowing of the latter two stories; but it is crucial to remember that all of these stories are working together in this book — that rage has a place amongst the other reactions we have when we are witnesses to the destruction of the Earth and all that live in its ecosystems, but it is not the only thing we should feel.
Both rage and hope can be detrimental to developing the kinds of responses to the climate emergency that we need to restructure society (and the kinds of stories we tell ourselves). Certainly, rage can motivate, but it can also turn on itself; hope can push relentlessly toward unrealistic, unachievable goals when good-enough is right in front of us.* Bolander’s novelette is certainly a rage-packed pill that is, at times, tough to swallow; but it is easier if the book’s moments of beauty are not overlooked. The book begins not with the dying Radium Girls, nor even with Topsy the elephant’s plight; it begins with an address to the future.
The book opens with the new inheritors of the Earth: an elephant matriarch addressing her “best beloved mooncalf,” telling a story as if she is tucking a little one into bed. Similarly, the book ends with verse as if the elephant Mother has been telling us the whole story. But the Matriarch’s voice isn’t only relegated to the final word. After the horror of Regan and Topsy making a final decision to end their lives by nuclear explosion in a crowd of onlookers, the elephant Mother resumes the narrative, telling us how Regan and Topsy should be remembered. What we take away from their story, the gift that the elephant Mother gives us, is the idea that sometimes we endure difficult things, sad things, but together we are witnesses for each other. We are not alone in these hardest of times.
As an alternative history, The Only Harmless Great Thing is a fascinating book about memory and the function of memory to shape the future. Indeed, the elephants — animals known for their ability to remember — relate their memories through the telling of myths. These are myths recounting Topsy’s life and the effect that it had on the elephants who remember, and older myths of the “Fur Mothers” that teach the reader about the structure of the emerging elephant society and its long history on Earth.
But this is also a book about the long “memory” of nuclear waste, and (more broadly) the long memory of the destruction that Western civilization has heaped on the Earth and the beings that live here with us. Bolander’s narrative contemplates a time when our destruction might not be so obvious, a time when we (and those that come after us) might need to be reminded of the dangers we have created. In this way, she reminds us of the importance of myth and story to the formation of cultures, suggesting a place for this story as we begin our necessary transformations.
*Let it be clear, that when we talk about hope sometimes pushing us toward unrealistic or utopian ideologies, we’re referring to Western lifestyle aspirations (what we might broadly call the North American Dream, what some might call colonization) and the effects of that continual striving. We are not referring to whatever feeling might be necessary in order to sustain an appropriate response to the climate crisis.