This Taiwanese novel is a slipstream tale about a slow-rolling ecological disaster, a floating island of garbage heading for Taiwan, and how it affects Alice Shih, a suicidal writer in Taiwan, and Atile’i, an islander who washes up on shore when the islands collide. Mysterious Atile’i is not the subject alluded to in the title, nor is he native to the garbage isle; he was only resting there after being exiled from his natural Polynesian home. In fact, his experience on the garbage island is a reversed “Robinson Crusoe” sort of thing, being about a nontechnological man trying to survive in an environment entirely made of technological artifacts.
It’s taken me years and Samuel Delany to process director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. It is undeniably absolutely horrifying. That horror leaves almost no breath for interpretation. What’s represented by this film—a block of life in the nineteenth century U.S. South, slavery, relationships of domination, exploitation—overpowers any other attempt of the viewer to make some sense of it—to interpret, pick apart, let something sit and stew. What makes the film so imposing on the senses is that it is so clearly a film made to be about reality. It’s book-ended by the kind of text that often forecloses discussion: “Based on a true story” tells us that what we are about to experience has happened to real people, and the continuance of the closing text blocks remind us that any closure offered in the film’s narrative does not extend much further into the world from which the film extracted only a slice of life. 12 Years happened, it says of itself. It also comes with a load of political weight that threatens to collapse any space for perspective the viewer hopes to get from the film.
This is the January 2016 issue. I was somewhat looking forward to taking a little bow for reaching my 20th anniversary on the NYRSF staff, but then January happened.
The body blow was David Hartwell dying suddenly. On January 19, David was performing a completely routine task—carrying a barristers bookshelf down a flight of stairs in one of the two buildings he shared in Westport, New York, with Kathryn Cramer and his family. He owned a lot of bookcases; those many lovely barristers shelves were a visual highlight of the living room at Stately Hartwell Manor in Pleasantville for decades.
He fell, and a blood vessel burst in his brain; the order is unknowable and doesn’t matter. He never regained consciousness, was never going to regain consciousness, and then he was gone.
The kindness and knowledge David carried around cannot be replaced.
A short editorial this time. The issue is a few days behind schedule (once again), even though (once again) I had a plan to get everything fixed and out the door by December 31. Instead, a swirling vortex of entropy descended on the house, bringing with it repeated plumbers’ visits, multiple car repairs, and treatment for an elderly pet in failing health. (Rats are wonderful pets, bright and soft and loving, but their lifespans are bitterly, comically short.)
The most ambitious work of futuristic fiction written in the eighteenth century was L’Enclos et les oiseaux [The Enclosure and the Birds] by Nicolas-Edmé Restif de la Bretonne, written between January and May 1796. There was, admittedly, not a lot of competition. L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771; tr. as Memoirs of the Year 2500) by Restif’s friend Louis-Sébastien Mercier, got all the publicity then and still gets it now although its snapshot vision of the future merely consists of imagining the worst atrocities of contemporary Paris tidied up. The immortal hero of L’Enclos et les oiseaux, by contrast, witnesses the entire future history of the Earth until the planet is swallowed by the Sun hundreds of thousands of years hence. Along the way he lives through the planet’s near-collision with a comet, which causes a worldwide upheaval and supplies the world with a second moon, occasioning a burst of rapid evolution whose products include a new species of winged humans.
While the goal may be to equip the driver to martyr himself at a moment’s notice, one wonders about traffic safety in this environment. Jokes about the Ford Pinto come to mind.
In this terrifying milieu, Ismaeel meets Tarzan, a homeless snack vendor and bomb maker, who leads him to Pir Pullsiraat, who provided the ticket and cash. Pullsiraat is the tightrope bridge over Jahannum, which each believer must cross, and Pir means guide. True to his name, Pir Pullsiraat sends Ismaeel—in the company of Chaacha Khidr and on a bicycle—across the tightrope to experience Hell and the borders of Paradise for himself.
New York: Tor Books, 2013; $34.99 hc/$21.99 tpb; 572 pages
We are confronted by the title of this big book. We do not know what to think. It is not likely that for David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden the title they have attached to their anthology of reprinted stories simply designates work published this century. 21st Century Science Fiction means way more than that to them, we reckon, on guard; a title like this, graven in stone, tells us that the 34 tales assembled here must be intended in some sense to represent like commandments the state of science fiction in this century; in which case, if sf is properly to be understood as a form uniquely shaped both to describe and instruct the world, 21st Century Science Fiction should be a lesson to us.