In January, Crossed Genres released an anthology called Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction to relatively limited response. For a fairly small publisher focused specifically on addressing issues of representation in the field, and for an anthology without any big names, this was perhaps to be expected; it's also unfortunate, because Menial is the future of science fiction.
Any themed anthology is going to evoke expectations that can't possibly be met. Each individual story will go too far or not far enough, and the mistake, which otherwise would be completely unremarkable, will be grabbed onto and displayed as the failure of the whole. This is doubly true when the title itself seems to equivocate on the point; on the one hand, we have "Menial," connoting the sort of dirty jobs that we tend to think of as the province of unskilled manual laborers. On the other, we have "Skilled Labor," pointing toward a much more conventional SFnal trope; the people who do a specific kind of work they have been trained to do.
This apparent contradiction isn't resolved in the individual stories themselves, either. Some, such as A. J Fitzwater's "Diamonds in the Rough" or Camille Alexa's "Sarah 87," focus on the menial, with protagonists who do the grunt work in an extrapolated future environment, while others, like Margaret M. Gilman's "All in a Day's Work," tend toward the representation of skilled laborers, whose job is as much to understand the labor they perform, so as to ensure that they do it in the most efficient way possible, as it is to perform it.
The specter of capital haunts this anthology. Its stories often feel unpolished, its contributors are basically unknowns, its marketing was nonexistent, and what unifies this disparate collection of stories is, as the equivocation in the title hints, less about a specific class of work than a total lack of access to capital. The stories often feel clipped just as they are about to present a compelling narrative, and, individually, each story feels slight, a pleasant exercise or a surprising shot in the dark at best. Collected, however, they present a body of work that functions as a critique of SFnal political economy.
Menial opens with "Diamonds in the Rough." Absent any editorial introduction, a cruel weight is placed on the story; not only does it have to work on its own terms, but it is tasked with setting the stakes for the anthology as a whole. Luckily, it does this better, even, than it functions as a standalone story. The point of view character, Magpie, is a disabled, non-gendered waste disposal worker on an interplanetary space shuttle. They float around in low-g caked in excrement, develop a crush, and, in a slightly strained climax, defeat their crush's assailant in a sort of VR gladiatorial combat. From the synopsis, the story sounds exactly like the sort of interesting but ultimately limited corrective that the title implies: here you will find science fiction stories like the ones you know, only with more diverse representation. It is in the passage where Dusty, Magpie's crush, asks Magpie for their preferred gender pronoun that the real consequences of this broadening are raised, and persist throughout the anthology.
Again the silence, and her mouth and eyes work as if trying to frame a question. I've seen this before, and I offer her a reassuring smile. As tired as I am after shifts, Dusty had taken up occupation in my thoughts the last few nights. Her lopsided smile, those thick eyebrows, her shoulders, her no nonsense scent of fresh linen with the hint of spice . . .
"It's okay. You can ask it. I think we can call each other friends," I say.
She blinks a few times, and takes a steadying breath. "Which personal gender pronoun do you prefer?"
"Neither." (p. 5)
On the level of diction, here, there's at least one obvious problem; the juxtaposition of "her shoulders" and "her no nonsense scent of fresh linen with a hint of spice" indicate two wildly different purposes for the list, the former positioning it as an intensely personal characterization of Magpie, the latter as a descriptive artifact for the reader. While it will work to do both things regardless of how it is written, these two points both egregiously foreground their alternative, and end up reading awkwardly.
The moment conveys, however imperfectly, not just a sense of the characters, but the tiny pressures that arise out of contested spots of interpersonal positioning. "I think we can call each other friends" is a perfect piece of dialogue for indicating broader social tensions being papered over in a very self-conscious way. This moment underlines the ways that social relations, whether cordial or overtly antagonistic (which happens later in the story when Magpie is aggressively misgendered prior to the climactic VR battle), are inextricably intertwined with the power dynamics of a society. By using the aesthetic of technological extrapolation to convey the content of sociological extrapolation, the point of "Diamonds in the Rough" becomes not just to tell itself, but to function as a critique of the political economy of science fiction.
This critique frames the anthology historically; Fitzwater's story employs Golden Age tropes in the service of a deconstruction of the way that period tended to obscure and ignore the social relations that conditioned its own production and distribution, and so the anthology as a whole takes the tone of this critique. The frame closes with Sabrina Vourvoulias's "Ember," a Le Guinian tale about a society whose biology divides them into specialized types of work related to the maintenance and cultivation of the forests that blanket their homeworld. By opening with a story that contains homage to the Golden Age and ending with one that draws on tropes from the New Wave, the anthology is set between the two most important schools of the genre. This historical framing is a kind of capital stock for science fiction, a sum of all assets available for facilitating its production, its source of tropes and techniques that allow a piece of fiction to be identified with the tradition. This dimension is crucial. A genre is only as vital as its canon is contested; bringing forward a critical reconstruction of that canon in fiction is how any genre stays alive.
Vourvoulias manages to construct some of the anthology's most well crafted sentences. In a scene in which the male culler Vals sees the female singer/trader mix Ita, "Ember" shows the actions of the society, and then contextualizes them with, "They all fear each other's ways: the privilege of the singers, the harshness of the cullers, and the jaded, fickle nature of the traders" (p. 139). This is an overview of the structural relationships of the three castes that make up the society, and offers a very easy introduction by which to understand (and misunderstand) what will proceed to happen throughout the story and the standards of the society in which it takes place. The sentence has its own simple cadence; the words each play off each other's weight, and the repetition of the "of the" gives the brief pauses between the two-word descriptions of the traders an unidentifiable importance. That the list occurs after a colon contextualizes this importance, giving the reader a clear indication that the sentence (and, then, the story) is to be read through the eyes of the society, and not in an anthropological way.
The absence of any explicit editorializing by Kelly Jennings and Shay Darach again allows the story itself, through the reader's interpretation, to contextualize what preceded it. The decision to simply close the anthology without their having any input in the way of privileging certain interpretations of stories or the thrust of the anthology as a whole is a strong one. It's almost unthinkable that an anthology with the theme of this one wouldn't be used as an excuse to polemicize, and yet Menial doesn't.
One of the consequences of this decision is to allow stories in the anthology which might be hamstrung by a rigid ideological framework to flourish under the implicit arguments made by the framing stories. Jasmine M. Templet's "Leviathan," for instance, is a pleasant read, but one that feels slight. The story of a newly employed janitor in a vaguely dystopian future (masterfully sketched in broad strokes) who finds out his job is to wash a benign Lovecraftian horror, the lack of a program allows it to be whimsical while at the same time being made significantly more interesting than it would be in most other contexts; the way that "Diamonds in the Rough," as well as other stories, primes the reader to read the anthology as a critique makes even that slightness into an asset.
On the other end, a story like Dany G. Zuyen's "The Heart of the Union" would be equally, if inversely, harmed by editorializing. It features an armed group of rebels occupying a symbolically significant but economically obsolete extraplanetary mining facility. Much of the story's strength on its own terms derives from its ambivalence to these actions; the narrator is a worker on the facility in a relationship with the woman who turns out to be the leader of the rebels, and who isn't necessarily sympathetic to their cause despite also not being fond of the way the management treats her. Instead of being overdetermined by a manifesto, the concerns raised throughout Menial give it room to breathe. The story is allowed to work not just on its own terms as a sort of tense political thriller, but also to have resonance with a broader critique without siphoning it down a narrow interpretation of the political.
Each story in Menial interlocks with the others, suggesting, without dictating, how best to read this anthology. From Kevin Bennett's straightforward industrial accident action scene "The Belt" to M. Bennardo's meditative take on isolation, inheritance, and wind farms in "Thirty-Four Dollars," every individual story is enhanced in its particulars by the frame, and reworks that frame from within. Perhaps the most exemplary is Barbara Krasnoff's "The Didibug Pin," which manages to distill the work of the anthology itself down into a series of simple, memorable images and situations. The story is about Lize, a woman who works as a harvester, collecting "cliffcrawlers," a sort of small animal with a stinger, for a corporation she's likely to be indebted to for the whole of her life. The titular pin is a small piece of jewelry found by the protagonist, which inspires a flashback to when she received it. The flashback takes place in a market fair, where Lize as a child met an activist who claimed the cliffcrawler's stings had long-term effects on the harvesters, and suggested that the animals themselves were being harvested for venom to make some sort of medicine. The flashback takes a slightly Proustian form, an unbidden and irresistible flood of memory triggered by a simple object; unlike Proust's narrator, however, Lize is swept into this memory not by the sensual object but the economic object.
"The Didibug Pin"'s setting is high SF; a quasi-Martian landscape, an extrapolated Western frontier in space, filled with strange and fascinating creatures and opportunities for those who’d take them. And perhaps this is the direction that story would go, in a subversive way, if it were a whole novel, or just a standalone story without the context of Menial to guide its impact; it certainly ends on a note of slight rebellion, the sort of thing that works great as the end of the first chapter of a conventional SF novel. But by the time the reader ends up at this story, it’s clear that the way that every story seems to cut off just as it’s about to turn into a proper SF story is no accident. Part of the critique of political economy, begun in "Diamonds in the Rough" and carried throughout the anthology, is a rejection, whether consciously on the parts of the writers and editors or not, of the narrative economy of science fiction. Once you start telling the story of the way systemic limits on access to capital affect groups for whom that oppression intersects with other, often more visible oppressions, the tall tale about the rugged individual begins to seem a little thin.
And that's not a critique without a program, either. Menial proves that the genre can incorporate a critique of its political economy, including the effects of that critique, and still move forward, as both a literary form and a marketing vehicle. Some of the writing might need finessing, and, living in the world we do, it'll take someone with a lot more capital stock to kick it into gear; but Menial proves that the tired state of science fiction can be thought through with careful editing, thoughtfully inclusive storytelling, and a healthy dose of a critique of political economy.
Ben Gabriel blogs at Uninterpretative.