‘The Queue,’ Illuminates Barriers to Liberation and Community-Building

I wanted to start with a quick shoutout to PodCastle, which won Best Fiction Podcast of 2017 from the Academy of Podcasters last month! As the only local editor, I somehow ended up onstage accepting the award on behalf of the full team. In many ways, I am just getting started in my role at PodCastle, but I’m incredibly impressed by the commitment of the lead editors to uplift diverse writing voices, both on the editorial and submissions side.

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I recently finished The Queue, a book where both physical and internal barriers have dramatic impacts on the communities described.

The Queue is a sci-fi dystopia, written by Egyptian journalist Basma Abdel-Aziz, and translated by Elizabeth Jacquette. It follows a man named Yehya, who was shot during an uprising that the repressive government denies ever happened. Because the government denies the uprising — referred to only as “The Disgraceful Events” — Yehya can’t legally get the bullet removed that lodged into his body when it happened. Instead, he must wait in a miles-long line with all the other citizens who need permission for something from the government. Along the way we learn about the lives and motivations of Yehya’s doctor Tarek, and other people from their city as well.

The queue ends at a giant gate that seems never to open. The government, referred to by the gate that symbolizes it, remains a mystery on the other side. Over time, The Gate gains more and more power over citizen’s lives by forcing them to get permission and pay fees for all sorts of everyday activities, including even window shopping.

The QueueI have to admit that I’m woefully undereducated about the events of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, which the narrative is in some ways based on. But, I deeply appreciate that literature is coming out about the day-to-day realities of political turmoil in Egypt and countries like it. (With a speculative twist, of course.)

What I found most chilling about the book was the portrayal of an unfeeling government represented by the physical, inanimate wall. The characters experience the ultimate sensations of powerlessness at being stuck on the other side of it, wondering what is going to happen next.

It’s actually a theme that comes up in my short stories fairly frequently. I’m obsessed with big institutions like the military or government bureaus, and with how they are experienced by the individual people both within and outside of them.

Another theme that really intrigued me from The Queue was the demonstration of how people accept their circumstances of oppression, even when there are hints that they have an ability impact the current situation by acting as a community.

We see the hints in the daily activity that happens in the queue. People talk to one another constantly to convey information, rumors, and encouragement. There grows a complex, informal system of how to reserve your place in the queue, dependent on how well you interact with those ahead of and behind you.

One woman, while waiting her turn, even starts an impromptu coffee business serving those who spend all day waiting in the line. Marriages are formed from the queue; people live, grow sick, and die, all while in the queue. Yet no one really questions whether this is the way things have to be or stops to take stock of the community assets that are being developed while they wait.

You can’t help but wonder, could the people in queue have liberated themselves and taken back their sovereignty if they all worked together, using their individual strengths, resources, and systems of communication?

Part of the brilliance of the book, however, is that you understand why the characters don’t do this. Abdel-Aziz makes you understand the settling-in of the paralysis preventing a stronger uprising from happening. When you are in pain or in fear for your life and the lives of those you love, it’s pretty tough, if not sometimes impossible to see beyond that to a bigger whole.

To do so would also require a deep faith in humanity — a belief that if you take that first step, throw that first rock, build that first block of a new vision, that others will move with you. Because if they don’t, then you are dead in the water.

I want to say how much I appreciated reading a translated work. Far too often, I ignore literature from other countries, because it’s not in English. But there are amazing works of speculative fiction out there in all sorts of places, from China to Romania to Russia and more.

If anyone has recommendations for more translated speculative fiction I should check out (I’ve got my eye on Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem), let me know here or on Twitter: @stefanicox.

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Navigating the Body Through Roxane Gay’s Hunger

crow pose

Trigger warning: This post discusses harassment, sexual violence, body image, and disordered eating.

I already knew this situation.

I heard his heavy footsteps behind me, his gruff voice calling at me, demanding my attention. He shouted for me to turn around, and he grew angrier and angrier that I wouldn’t, that I wasn’t stopping for him, wasn’t acknowledging his interest. My body was a lighting wire of tense energy.

It wasn’t the middle of the night, but it wasn’t the middle of the day either. There were people out, yet no one was taking up the sidewalk on the last stretch to my apartment building.

He followed me around the final corner, and I sped up, hoping to put distance between the two of us. My keys were already out of my bag and clutched between my fingers, ready. For what? I reached the glass door of the building and hastily swiped my key fob. I entered and walked toward the foyer stairs that would take me up to my apartment. I heard the front door close. Then, I heard the buzzing sound of the gate mechanism stop. I let out a breath. The door was locked.

I heard a loud thud.

I whipped around to see that the man, still outside, had thrown himself bodily against the door in an effort to get my attention. His angry eyes burned through the glass. All I could see was pure rage at being ignored. He banged his fists again with demanding force.

My heart jackhammered in my chest, as I went upstairs and bolted my door. I did not sleep well that night, though I had no real belief that the man would stick around, or be able to find me even if he got in. It was his eyes that wouldn’t let me fall away from consciousness, the frenzied possessiveness I saw there from someone I had never even met.

Hunger

I understand how lucky I am that this is the way that story ends. Too many people, especially women, have stories that end differently. Roxane Gay is one of those women.

Her book Hunger is a lot of things to me. On one level, it is a book about sexual trauma, and the many difficult methods that hurt people use to cope with trauma (overeating being a main one in Gay’s life).

It is also a book about ownership, namely what it means to try and own your body in a world where so many people will judge it, make comments about it, and compare it to other bodies—again, particularly if you inhabit a female shape, or a fat shape.

I was blown away by Gay’s honesty in exploring these topics. She lays out her story simply, without embellishing or minimizing the shame she often feels. I think it takes a lot to share in that way as a writer and a human being.

Hunger mattered to me, because the pursuit of owning my own body is intrinsic to who I am as a woman of color, as a feminist, as a writer, and so much more. It’s part of why I look to meditation and body-oriented practices like yoga to center me in life. Every time I tune in to my physical sensations I learn something new about who I am, what I’m feeling, and what I want.

Trying to be with our own bodies is a lifelong journey, but thanks to Gay, at least we have some snarky tweets to keep us company along the way:

Roxane Gay tweet_small

Header image: Dave Rosenblum via Flickr.

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The Micro-Governments of Infomocracy

Real politics these days is exhausting. And sometimes the utility of trying to keep up with the news — especially in terms of my mental health and energy — is a bit dubious. So, maybe it’s not a surprise that I’ve been thinking about a book that looks at the merits and issues of a completely different vision of governance.

Malka Older’s Infomocracy takes place in a world several years past where we are now. There are few country borders left, and instead former political structures have been replaced by “micro-democracies” of 100,000 people each, who vote as a block called a centenal. Each centenal decides who they want their government to be out of the thousands of political parties that now exist.

For example, centenals where environmental issues are important — referred to as “eco-centenals” — can decide to ban cars from their small geographic area and set up technology that causes car wheels to pop if vehicles enter the area. Another centenal may choose to focus on having really strong transit and infrastructure. Others are headed by corporations, like the PhilipMorris party, in whose centenals of course smoking is always legal.

Central to this new world is the role of the agency Information, a giant bureaucracy which provides up-to-date facts about everything possible  from the current doings and pollings of political parties, to background facts on someone you just sat next to in a cafe. Here’s an example of a tool created using facts from Information:

“Citizens can even see a personalized grid with specific outcomes of each government for them: how much they would pay in taxes, for example, or changes in the funding projected to go to their kids’ schools, or the probability that their local bar will be shut down. [..] It’s a popular tool, and surveys last decade showed that a plurality of citizens used it to decide their vote.”

Obviously, votes can change fast based on the Information updates, and political parties do their best to take advantage of them. There are a lot of relevant references to our current state of media oversaturation, as ads for various political parties frequently pop up on the characters’ vision while they navigate different centenals.

I couldn’t help but see parallels to the way modern-day conservatives use rhetoric and advertising to get the votes of middle America:

“In the first election, Information leadership was naive and idealistic […] They thought that providing data about each candidate government would be enough for people to make informed, more-or-less sensible choices. […] That did not work out so well. The new Heritage coalition of wealthy, experienced global corporates ignored the accessibility of Information, produced their standard glossy misinformation, and not only took the Supermajority but won centenals where, analysts agreed, it was demonstrably not in the interest of the people living there to vote for them.”

On the other side, you have a clear example of the elite liberal archetype through Information, whose wealth, power, and Ivory Tower detachment from the public makes political parties and average citizens dislike those who work there.

You also have the massive party Heritage, which to me symbolizes American Democrats and Republicans alike, who have the incumbency advantage that lets them dominate the political environment. All other players look tiny in comparison.

It was fascinating to see the ways that Information tries to address the potential corruption and scandal of the political system, particularly at election time. Debates, for instance, are audio-only, so that hypothetically voters can’t be overly influenced by the looks, appearance, or mannerisms of any particular party. Some parties, like Policy1st don’t even believe in having candidates. Instead they rotate out various spokespersons so that the policies, and not the leaders, can remain the focus.

I was pretty impressed with the creativity of this world. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read something that does tackle the entire world as its subject matter. Characters fly from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Qatar and beyond as the story unfolds, and you do feel the possibility of what the world would be like without borders in the same way that we have them today.

Then there’s the drama of the characters. We have Ken, who works for the supposedly idealistic Policy1st party, as a sort of spy of the goings-on of other parties. He falls for Mishima, a downright cool high-level expert at Information, with a talent for ferreting out unusual — and often politically illegal — data anomalies, such as those in the big election that is coming up. (It’s just the 3rd election of this new world order.)

We also have Domaine, who provides a strong counterpoint, since he hates the current system and is doing his best to disrupt it.

Overall, there’s a lot of political wonkyness and intrigue, but also suspense, mystery, and a bit of romance.

While it definitely took some time to work myself into the world that Older created here, it was completely worth the effort. I loved seeing Older’s background as an international humanitarian professional clearly influencing the expertise and scope of the plot in Infomocracy.

P.S. Malka is the sister of Daniel José Older; talk about a talented family…

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5 Reasons Why I Watched Netflix’s ‘3%’ Series

Three PercentSource: Agonybooth.com.

I stumbled onto “3%” the same way I find out about a lot of Netflix shows — by previewing the shows recommended to me by its algorithms. Often, I’ll try out a show for an episode or two and decide it’s not worth anything further, but this one got me hooked, and I wanted to spend some time thinking about why exactly that is. Here’s what I decided:

1) It’s super entertaining.

I loved The Hunger Games series, and I have to admit that what initially attracted me to this show was a similar premise — young adults competing against each in a unequal, dystopian world to escape their circumstances of material poverty.

The show follows several characters as they try to reach the end of The Process — a system of puzzles and challenges that determines who will become a part of the elite three percent of the population that lives in the rich Offshore.

The main protagonists are Michele, who is haunted by the loss of her brother to The Process and committed to ideals of justice, and Ezequiel, who is a part of the three percent and runs The Process every year. But one of the strengths of the show is actually its large cast of characters, each of whom has his or her own storyline and background.

To make matters more interesting, there is also a mysterious rebel force known as The Cause that is trying to infiltrate The Process to spy on the Offshore and ultimately take down their system of governance.

I have to give a caveat that 3% is not your typical Hollywood-produced movie. It’s clearly on the low-budget end, but the filmmakers do a lot with what they have.

2) It’s not about the U.S.

As Beth Elderkin says in her Gizmodo article about the show:

It’s vital to support international science fiction in the US. It widens our perspective of how the world is, and more importantly, how it could be.

Watching “3%” reminded me how American and Eurocentric most of my TV-watching habits are. Even though the show isn’t about modern-day Brazil, the cast is clearly Brazilian, and the communities that the “candidates” come from seems to resemble favelas, with their crowding and sanitation challenges. Additionally, there’s an overall pacing to the show that feels different from what I normally watch on TV.

I also enjoyed hearing the Portuguese dialogue, and I’d recommend watching the show with the original audio and subtitles, rather than the dubbed version.

3) It’s diverse.

While Brazil is a highly diverse country, it still struggles with colorism. I imagine it might be an appealing prospect for filmmakers to build a primarily light-skinned cast. I was happy to see that didn’t happen with “3%” for the most part. There’s diversity among both the actors who play the marginalized Inland residents, as well as among the Offshore leadership. (I am giving a little side-eye, however, to the Netflix banner showing most of the darker characters in the back row and out of the light. It’s also worth noting that the biggest roles, Michele and Ezequiel are light-skinned.)

There’s also diversity in terms of gender, class, and physical ability (one character, Fernando, needs a wheelchair to get around). One point I really enjoyed is that Fernando isn’t desexualized the way that many characters with physical disabilities often are. He’s part of a romantic subplot in the show. He’s also not portrayed as an object of pity or as one-dimensional. He clearly has his own strengths and weaknesses outside of his physical body.

4) It shows ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as complex.

One of my pet peeves in fantasy/sci-fi is when characters are made simplistic, with the heroic people on one side and the evil characters on another. “3%” acknowledges that in real life, people have complex motivations for the actions they take. Pretty much every character has a secret or two that impacts why they do what they do and who they are drawn to connect with.

Ezequiel, who seems most clearly to be “the bad guy” at the outset of the show, is revealed to have a heart and his own principles, however twisted. And The Cause, which seems to be a network of underdogs at first glance, also develops nuance as the series progresses.

5) It makes you think about society.

One of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to dystopia as a genre is that it pushes you to think about the founding principles of the society we live in now, as well as how the world would be better or worse with certain changes. It allows you to take reality and ask the question, “what if?”

There is clear commentary in “3%” on wealth inequality, through showing the poverty of the Inland juxtaposed with the elite social life and high living standards of those who live in the Offshore.

Through including the element of The Cause, the show also seems to say that no situation so unequal can hold forever. Mass discontent will always push to the surface, no matter how many surveillance cameras or armed forces the government commands. It felt like there were harkenings to the Arab Spring, current class tensions in the U.S., and other modern-day political pressure cookers.

Perhaps Former President Obama put it best when he said, “Democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.”

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Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood Were Ready for a Trump World

skyscape fog

“After everything that happened, I’m not reading 1984, I’m not reading Fahrenheit 451, I’m not reading A Handmaid’s Tale. I’m reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I feel like if we’re looking for any answers or where we’re going, it’s definitely in Octavia’s work.”

That’s what speculative fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor had to say about what book to reach for in the age of Trump.

Having read Parable of the Sower, I recognized some reasons why Okorafor would point readers to Butler’s work. There’s the portrayal of a world where climate change has progressed enough to cause major problems to habitability and economies. There’s the way that people have split off into walled off communities. How countries have shuttered their borders to other nations.

But I was particularly struck by Okorafor’s reference to a character in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, whose stated goal is to “make America great again.” As a feminist, I was also interested in reading Atwood’s famous The Handmaid’s Tale. So I picked up both.

Ultimately, I agree that Butler’s works seem to resonate more fully with the current times. The unexpected political success of presidential candidate Andrew Steele Jarret in Talents struck a pretty eerie chord with Trump’s win while using the same tagline. It’s an incredibly layered novel with strong themes of power, purpose, community, and religion all coming together in one story.

But I think The Handmaid’s Tale is worth a read too for different reasons. It’s a meditation on gender roles and a purposeful exaggeration of society’s obsession with commenting on and controlling women’s reproductive choices. The world of Atwood’s story feels much tighter to the protagonist as you navigate her fearful and constrained reality alongside frequent flashbacks to the way things were “before.”

The full video from Al Jazeera on dystopian literature in the modern age is definitely worth a watch if you have time:


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