Tag Archives: “Welcome to the Federation”

Human Science Fiction

I’m starting to get a sense for Thoughtcrime Experiments, and I’m liking it. I think the anthology is trying to explore a wider variety of human elements and viewpoints than are seen in the typical science fiction anthology.

Mary Anne Mohanraj’sJump Space” has some of the most fully realized relationships that I’ve seen in science fiction. The plot is a family drama, really, set against a science fiction background. Like “Welcome to the Federation,” which I also blogged about, I don’t think this story had to be science fiction. I could see it rewritten as a story of plain old Earthbound foreign travel. It’s really about the strains the main character places on her children and polyamorous marriage when she finds a new lover. Also like in “Welcome to the Federation,” the story’s genre emphasizes the theme of strangeness (foreigners aren’t just foreign–they’re alien).

Sarita, the main character, is very well drawn:

“You say culture like there’s just one,” Sarita said sharply. “What about the engineered species and their cultures?”

“Sarita, c’mon,” Joshua said. “The engineered species and their treatment here are her point.”

“Exactly,” Kate snapped. “The dominant culture on this world is disgusting.”

Sarita said primly, “We’re supposed to avoid value judgments.”

“Kate’s right. It is appalling, really,” Joshua said. He tried to keep his tone mild, though Sarita in uppity mode would make a saint want to slap her.

Sarita deflated, flopping down into the co-pilot’s chair. She reached out an apologetic hand to Kate, who, after a moment, took it. Joshua breathed a covert sigh of relief.

“I know,” Sarita said, “they’re awful — but it’s not as if I want to take the girls down there. You can all stay up here; I just need one more vocal grouping — and no one’s ever studied any of the genetically engineered serf-species here.”

“Because no one civilized can stand to be around them. Poor things,” Kate said.

Joshua knew Kate was right, but he also knew that Sarita would get her way. She almost always did. She wanted things so passionately, so intensely, that it became impossible to say no to her. She wasn’t even saying anything now — just looking at Kate with those big dark eyes steady, silently pleading.

The other characters are a little more uneven. Mohanraj gives details about each of the other three characters, but I felt that both the male characters were a little bland. Joshua, Sarita’s husband, doesn’t seem to have come from anywhere, and I’m conscious of this because Mohanraj makes a great effort to show us where Sarita came from. Cho, the unwelcome new love interest, seems like a typical “hot guy”–though he does have fur.

Despite that complaint, I really enjoyed reading a science fiction story that explored an unusual source of tension. And the theme of love’s simultaneous strength and fragility was emphasized against the backdrop of space. Love and family seem even more accidental and precarious when the universe is so large.

Because I recently read an essay by Mohanraj on writing about race, I was very conscious of how she handled this:

“Try this,” Sarita said, bringing over a bowl to Kate’s bunk. “My mother sent the recipe; she swears by it for nursing mothers. Of course, she’s not happy that I’m not the one nursing Ini, but still — can’t let her only granddaughter starve, can she? It’s a white curry, full of coconut milk. Milk to bring in the milk, they say. Although it’s actually the fenugreek that does the trick; stimulates milk production.”

“Can’t I just take some pills?” Kate asked. “I’m not hungry.” She lay sideways on the bunk, eyes closed, Iniya curled naked against her chest.

Sarita poked her arm gently. “That’s just the exhaustion talking. Who would have thought the tough freighter captain would be laid low by a little baby! C’mon, try a bite. For me? It took me hours to find all the ingredients on that last planet we stopped at, and they cost a fortune.”

Kate opened her eyes, sighed, and then opened her mouth and let Sarita spoon the curry in. She chewed wearily and swallowed. “You’d think after all these years they’d have found some better way to feed babies.”

Mohanraj mentioned on her blog that she’s working on a sequel to “Jump Space.” I’d read it. I hope she finishes soon.

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Colonials

I’ve had a chance to read more than just the appendix in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology. The opening story, Mark Onspaugh’sWelcome to the Federation,” is a fundamentally familiar story to me, and to anyone who has lived in a place that’s been colonized. Gird, leader of Covalla, struggles with the changes on his home planet brought about by the coming of the Federation. The story is a bit top-heavy with telling rather than showing, but it paints a clear picture of the sense of regret and bitterness that comes in the wake of colonization:

The bus went along Coastal Route 24, a four lane highway that the Federation had built to replace the first Federation road, a two-lane thoroughfare they had named Sea Front Road. In pre-Federation time it had been a small and lovely path called Minoh-Ul-kjavallah, or “The Trail Minoh the Sea God Took to Court Mother West Wind”.

You couldn’t see much of the ocean, any more. The clear areas had become the sites of barracks for a proposed Federation base. The enormous base had been half completed when war had broken out near Antares, and all available Federation soldiers and engineers had gone to fight the good fight.

The story takes its time establishing cultural details of the Covallans. Reading it reminded me of the way I felt growing up on Oahu in Hawaii. My grandmother worked at the Iolani Palace, seat of the Hawaiian monarchy at the end of its years, and I would take tours often, hearing stories of how the last Hawaiian queen, Liliuokalani, had been removed from power. I heard about prohibitions against the hula dance. I watched rich foreigners establish a place on the island at the expense of native Hawaiian people and culture. I had mixed feelings about all of it, because I’m a poi dog (mixed blood), and because I felt nostalgic for a past I didn’t know even as I couldn’t imagine giving up the comforts of the present.

“Welcome to the Federation” doesn’t approach this topic in a very complicated way. It’s basically a wish fulfillment story–Gird devises a plan to get the Federation to pull back enough that his people can restore their original culture. I enjoyed the fantasy, but I was a little unsatisfied because my experiences growing up left me distrustful of  simple nostalgia. The story is simplified in part by the fact that the main character remembers what the planet was like before the foreigners came. I was in pretty different shoes growing up after the Hawaiian language had become a curiosity.

I did enjoy the story’s humorous tone, though the jokes exploited easy targets:

Admiral Benjamin Breckenridge IV was the first to step out onto Gird’s lawn, squashing some hgu lilies in the process.

“I’m here for the Ptaak,” he said menacingly, holding both a ceremonial sword and a phasing blast pistol. His first words had been carefully crafted on the journey to Covalla, beating out “Show yourselves, alien scum!” and “Who wants some?”.

“As soon as they saw you coming they ran,” said Gird nervously.

A victory cry went up, cut short when Breckenridge raised his hand. “And just who might you be?”

“Gird Mackel, brother of the late Governor,” Gird said.

“I thought the dead Governor was Gird Mackel,” said Breckenridge, puzzled.

“All my brothers are named Gird Mackel.”

Admiral Breckenridge nodded paternally, accustomed to the simple ways of indigenous people out on the Wrong Arm of the Galaxy.

As I read the story, I wondered why it was science fiction. Don’t get me wrong–I think science fiction is a good venue for addressing issues of colonization, because stories of aliens are similar to stories of foreigners. I found the analogy so direct in this case, however, that I was curious about how the science fiction setting added to or changed the story. I don’t see grounds here for a rigorous definition of science fiction. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on how the genre serves the story.