‘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.


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.


Three Percent

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

Three PercentSource:

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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skyscape fog

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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