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Infinite Constellations coverInfinite Constellations is an anthology from and of writers of color; the cover proclaims this with identity statements from some of the authors featured within. Many of them list multiple countries, revealing their complex cultural backgrounds. Initially encountering this book, I was hesitant. As a white person raised in America, I felt I was not the reader best placed fully to assess this collection: since whiteness has been rendered in Western discourse as a default mode, I do not have much sense of myself as belonging to a separate community, as many of the contributors of Infinite Constellations express. Some are members of the Cherokee Nation, some hail from Japan, or Cuba, or Jamaica; some are Black and Latinx, and I was struck by the specific locations that were named, forming a geography of identity. But the project of the book is a twofold gesture, both tying people closer to their complex roots, and extending a hand to share their traditions with others.

Some of the stories and poems have no discernible element of sci fi or fantasy, but that had to be intentional: the opening statement shows a strong purpose at work. It's possible that the real fantasy underlying Infinite Constellations is that we can all understand each other a little more across the barriers of race, culture, age, gender, and the many other categories used to divide us—a fantasy that looks for the good side of globalization. Perhaps being very connected can allow us to enlarge our understanding of others, if we let it. This is a beautiful idea, and the collection positions itself as an antidote to a rhetoric of division and hate which is present in American media and elsewhere.

In Infinite Constellations, kinship, friendship, love, and community merge in a blend of short stories and poetry. These are mystical tales, fitting of a collection subtitled An Anthology of Identity, Culture, and Speculative Conjunctions: we are free of many of the usual genre cliches, or we meet them in much-altered forms. For instance, in “Mermaid Names” by Ra’Niqua Lee, there are hurricanes made of girls who have been murdered, and four are deposited on the beach and given fresh bodies (p. 132). Elsewhere, Lynn C. Pitts’s “The Swan” presents a humorous fresh take on the swan princess mythology, with a touch of body horror: it’s an involved coming-of-age type of story, with some world-building, a magic curse, and girl power energy. While some of those fantasy elements are certainly familiar, “The Swan” succeeds on its narrator voice, which transforms everything we think we know into something just a little different.

Interspersed with traditional narrative forms like “The Swan” and “Mermaid Names” are one-page prose offerings and broken-line poems. For example, Jennifer Elise Foerster’s poem entitled “The Last Kingdom” comes right after “Mermaid Names.” These two pieces illustrate the satisfying pattern of pairing the more traditional narratives with poems that echo their themes. As is inevitable with poetry, there are also references and reflections on the moon, but the preceding story’s theme of embodiment also recurs:

“The moon lays upon me
its phosphorescent veil.
The floating world—luciferous:
bleached coral coliseum,
a mermaid’s molten gown—”
“The Last Kingdom” (p. 148)

There is even more variety within the poetry: some poems, like André O. Hoilette’s “sealing the room,” are explicitly narrative-based, building up a story, conflict, and characters in five pages. Others, like “The Longest Stretch” by Lucien Darjeun Meadows, are pure language, image and sound (p. 228). In the latter, for instance, a character/poetic speaker seems to be having an ecstatic experience in nature: “I feel the world/ could break open and I could break too/tell me there is summer past the next hill” (p. 228).

Then we have pieces that identify themselves as fragments: bits of dreams and memories, song lyrics and scientific terms all intertwined. “Transmigrations: A Future History of Multiple Bodies of Water,” a poem by Kenji C. Liu with the subtitle “Recovered Fragments,” is an example (p. 175). In this hybrid poetry piece, scientific names of animals, braille, Greek words, a chart, and Asian characters all blend together to create a rhapsody celebrating the ocean and its life.

It’s difficult to arrange a collection of mixed short pieces like this, but Infinite Constellations is largely successful. It’s not overly choppy; the varied formatting doesn’t become intrusive or distracting, even if it sometimes calls attention to itself. To process these shifts requires a particular type of patient attention. The reader must roam over many different formats, styles, and themes. This range is the greatest strength of the book. While everything is not always clear, it is all intriguing.

Still, not every piece lands perfectly. Some of the short flash fictions seem too thin, simple scenarios that can’t quite stand on their own between the bigger pieces. But in their introduction, the editors are clear about their intentions, and this polyphony of voices is fully deliberate. Alternating between modes of fantasy, SF, and realism was the purpose of the collection. The various pieces, and their various successes, are intended to form something like a found poem or a jazzy improv number. The creators took a chance by doing this, and it worked. Once you accept its premise, the overall rhythm of the book holds together.

The genre-bending is a constant motif. In George Abraham’s “Anti-Confessional, Again,” for instance, the poet takes on the persona of Juta from Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. The language is moving, though I had to Google the character name for context. (I read His Dark Materials a long time ago and could not place the character or relationship referenced.) Other stories, like Pedro Iniguez’s “A Final Song for the Ages,” progress through a more simple linear plot in the expected fashion: in this one, a nine-year-old girl is jettisoned from a spaceship in an escape pod, and ends up on a new planet full of giant centipedes. Her story deals with themes of survival and acceptance. “Antelope Canyon Hotel” by Thea Anderson is another plot-driven story, following the afterlife of a woman stuck in a hotel room—or more accurately, stuck in the mistakes she made while alive. Though it contains a few “haunted hotel” motifs, the story is ultimately deeper, exploring the strange paradoxes of our human lives, posing questions like how can a person view themselves as loyal while simultaneously cheating on their partner? And how can we exist while also being mentally aware of ourselves as—rather like the contents of Infinite Constellations itself—“a strange mix, a funny mixture” (pp. 167, 172 ).

The left-turns keep coming. Some of the long narrative pieces, like “Digital Medicine” by Brian K. Hudson, are rooted not in SF or horror but in realism: Hudons’s for instance, is a story about technology and the Cherokee language. The characterization is great; the relationship between a young hacker and a wise old woman is sensitive and moving. But nothing SFFnal  happens in this story; it’s all believable, real-life stuff. Similarly, in Soham Patel’s “Hello, Ghost,” the poet meditates on an old globe, hinting at colonization and memory. While a lovely piece, there’s nothing fantastical about it. Indeed, the elements of fantasy or SF weave in and out of the collection, more notable for being sometimes nonexistent.

Infinite Constellations is not an easy read. It is deep, dreamy, healing, and sometimes confusing. The entire collection is pushing at the boundaries of what fantasy and SF genre writing is, moving it towards something more intimate, more surprising. In fact, there is much more content in this book than I can touch on in a coherent review. It may be odd to describe a book as rich; but this book is richly flavored. It required many sittings to consume. I had to adjust my expectations and remind myself I was not reading a novel. Often I found myself reading for a poet’s pleasure in the language. In these pieces, the language was where the bulk of innovation happens. Every author brings their own music on the sentence level.

The final short story in the collection, Daniel José Older’s “The Passing,” deals with the gathering and transmission of stories, depicted as an act of ritual magic: only a dying story-keeper can pass their collection of stories onto a younger person (p. 249). It’s a fitting ending to a book that is a wide-ranging collection of vastly different pieces. In a way, the reader of Infinite Constellations has become like the young initiate in the story: someone receiving a gift he does not yet understand, and with it a responsibility.

While reading this collection, I felt my own need for greater education and awareness. There were many cultural references, words, languages, and other elements I didn’t recognize. I began to understand my own lack of knowledge of world cultures. This is in no way a criticism of the book—in fact it is this very element that gives it such strength. The variety confronts the reader, but with a positive challenge. It requires you to approach with openness, with a willingness to roll with the unexpected. That is how Infinite Constellations gets to you; a slow accumulation of so many different voices and lives and modes of being in the world. It’s a very rich meal indeed.

Nicole E. Beck's writing has appeared twice in print, as a long poem from dancing girl press and as a multi-genre chapbook from Red Bird Chapbooks. She studies art history with an eye towards more interdisciplinary work. Her most recent chapbook can be found here.
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