The subtitle to Rosarium Publishing’s recent anthology volumes, Sunspot Jungle, gives away its mission statement, not only for the anthology but also for the small press itself—The Ever Expanding Universe of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Established in 2013, the small press has extended the genre fiction universe by publishing books from a wide range of multicultural writers who often get overlooked in the speculative fiction community. Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany (2013) and Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond (2013), just two of its previous anthologies, each featured a wide array of writers working in the speculative genre. In 2018, Rosarium Publishing passed a milestone of five years in publishing, a remarkable accomplishment in this competitive industry, and Sunspot Jungle is an anniversary gift from the small press to itself.
Each volume features fifty or more stories, the majority of which are reprints, and covers every genre and sub-genre, from SF and fantasy, fairy-tales, apocalyptic and zombie horror, to experimentalism, slipstream, and magic realism. Well-known authors like N.K. Jemisin, Victor LaValle, Charlie Jane Anders, and Carmen Maria Machado share space with lesser known writers, some of whom have been translated into English, such as Mélanie Faz and Tang Fei, among others. No overriding themes unite the volumes, outside of the publisher’s stated intention to provide a space for diversity. And these volumes certainly accomplish that.
Volume 1 offers a diverse selection of themes and tropes, many familiar in genre fiction, but presented in fresh and surprising ways. While there were many stories that were well written and thought-provoking, the ones that stood out for me had a subtle, almost gentle approach to their storytelling.
“I Make People Do Bad Things,” by Chesya Burke, explores the 1920s numbers rackets of Harlem, New York. Its protagonist, Queenie St. Clair, is a numbers runner, one of the rare women working in the racket. She’s maternal toward the men and women in her stable, but tough, ambitious, and cynical enough to use the orphaned child of one of her prostitutes to bump off competitors. This girl has a special gift. With just one thought, she can make people do bad things. When Queenie learns of her gift, she makes the girl one of her enforcers. Within months, competitors mysteriously jump off bridges, hurl themselves into trains, or suffer any number of gruesome deaths that can’t be traced back to Queenie. It’s a good system, until the young girl’s psychopathic behavior becomes uncontrollable. The name she adopts, Shiv, signals how far she’s fallen off the path of innocence. When local mobster, Dutch Schultz, learns how some of his men have been dispatched, he offers a deal to Queenie that leads to tragic consequences for both Queenie and Shiv. What I loved most about this story is how Burke blends historical events and people with the fantastic. Schultz, of course, was a real mobster in 1920s New York, but Bumpy Johnson appears here as well, as Queenie’s enforcer. Johnson was an infamous racketeer in 1930s Harlem, whose life story was adapted into the 2007 movie American Gangster. Burke also has a great character in Queenie St. Clair, who is quietly fearsome in the way she runs her racket, but fiercely protective of the enforcers and prostitutes in her circle. Given that, for black women during this era, criminal enterprises were the only way to eke out financial security and freedom, Queenie’s choices are explicable. But they also come with a high price: “I make people do bad things, the girl had once said. Moi aussi, Queenie thought. So do I” (p. 255).
Another story with a delicate touch is the ethereal “Born Out of Frost,” by Mélanie Fazi. In this story, a young woman is entranced by an image of frost on her windowpane. As she studies the image, she is shocked when it starts to resemble her. The image becomes the girl as she wishes herself to be, more confident, more mature, while the real girl is trapped in the mirror image’s frozen world, growing older, weaker, and less secure. Not a lot happens in the story plot-wise, but its strength lingers, buoyant in its sense of atmosphere and dread. There’s something about snow and frost that is deeply appealing to me. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a native Californian, but I’m drawn to the language that accompanies descriptions of snow, a sense of delicateness and fragility that Fazi exploits to great effect:
The bedroom is freezing. The world has turned white. Everything is covered with frost. A book just shattered when I knocked it off a shelf. It split into two sharp-edged pieces. Now I don’t dare touch anything: I’m afraid of breaking it all. Objects that don’t yield might snap off my fingers, leaving my hands with frozen stumps. (p. 182)
Within its fairy tale trappings, themes of identity, aging, and death are explored. We are often implored to look at “the (wo)man in the mirror” but “Born Out of Frost” asks whether the reflection we see is not who we truly are, but who we aspire and hope to be, the image of ourselves lurking just in the corner, out of sight.
Other stories in the volume deal with death and grief. Victor La Valle’s “Spectral Evidence” is a story that builds slowly to reveal its themes of suicide and parental guilt, and the lies we tell to protect ourselves from the bitter truth of life. Questions of identity also make multiple showings, with stories like Tessa Kum’s dystopian “Acception.” In this tale, Australia has become a totalitarian state, a situation exacerbated by the use by the state of certain people who can read minds to shuffle the undesirables—mostly POC, mixed race—into internment camps. A rebellion led by Tessa, the first-person narrator, hopes to upend the state, but its aims shift when she discovers a mind reader, Yvonne, whom they use as a weapon. They then become what they hate—people who use mind readers to categorize, destroy, and determine how people should live and be. Though lengthy, the story is quite good and never manages to drag down. Its themes of the immutability of morality, particularly in desperate times, is challenging and thought-provoking. Those who are familiar with Minority Report or 1984, will recognize some of the ideas Kum explores here, which she is herself up-front about: “Colin actually used the phrase ‘thoughtcrime’ that time, and I don’t believe he was being ironic. I don’t believe he’s read 1984 either” (p. 600). With its focus on race and gender, Kum’s story expands on these ideas and takes them beyond the well-worn and clichéd speculations of dystopian fiction.
The fragile nature of memory is a theme that is woven into Amal El-Mohtar’s “Madeleine,” and, like Kum, she finds inspiration in other works, Marcel Proust’s novel À la recherche du temps perdu in particular. The title and the epitaph gives away its influence, as madeleines—small, delicate French cakes—play an important role in Proust’s work. Here, Madeleine, who has lost her mother to Alzheimer’s, takes an experimental drug in a clinical trial for the disease. She begins having hallucinatory dreams in which she conjures up a young friend, Zeinab. But is this friend a hallucination, a repressed memory, or someone real? The story reveals its mystery in a slow, but confident manner, shaping its themes, that memories are defined by our past, but the future is unknowable and therefore more promising in its riches. As with the other stories in the anthology, death and grief are also explored here.
Not all stories in this volume work as well as they might. “The Faithful Soldier, Prompted,” by Saladin Ahmed, has some unfortunate lines. “A sputtering spurt of shot sprayed the creature,” and its following sentence, “The tiger roared, bled, and fled,” (p. 152) could have used more editing. And “Notes from Liminal Space,” by Hiromi Goto, is an experimental take on alien invasion that was too academic and esoteric for me (it was originally presented in a keynote speech by the author at the “2015 Academic Conference of Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy”). With more than fifty selections in each volume, and in such wide-ranging styles and genres, can land like a thud and end up being underappreciated. With a compilation that includes N.K. Jemisin (“Walking Awake”), Malka Older (“The Black Box”), Jeffrey Ford (“Blood Drive”), Karin Lowachee (“Good Home”), and Charlie Jane Anders (“The Day it All Ended”), there are enough stories in this volume alone to keep readers of genre fiction entertained. I admire the inclusion of different literary styles in the genre, but perhaps a story like Goto’s would be better appreciated in an anthology of similarly themed experimental works.
Volume 2 follows in the same vein as Volume 1 by offering a diverse selection of fairy tales, dystopias, alternate universes, and SF. “Geppetto,” by Carlos Hernandez, is based on The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, seen this time through the eyes of the puppet’s creator. Unlike Collodi’s famous characters, Hernandez’s Pinocchio is a troublemaker, and Geppetto is the butt of his creation’s not-so-innocent “adventures.” “Other Metamorphosis,” by Fábio Fernandes, imagines Gregor Samsa of Franz Kafka’s famous tale as an oneironaut, one who can “travel to other realities with his mind and become one with them,” (p. 517). Both stories are short but quite satisfying. “Soulless,” by Walter Dinjos, is an Afrofuturistic slash detective noir story about souls that are bought and used as an energy source. Questions of guilt, what it means to have a soul, and the exploitation of Africa and its people as sources of energy are just some of the ideas Dinjos addresses here. “Portrait of a Young Zombie in Crisis,” by Walidah Imarisha, one of the rare funny stories included in the anthology, satirizes racism, veganism, Portland, and zombies: “I’d found a way to enjoy my zombie unlife to the fullest, without the wracking guilt. If I only ate vegans, essentially, I was still a vegan as well. You are what you eat, right?” (p. 396).
Some of the most extraordinary world-building can be found in Chinelo Onwualo’s “Read Before Use.” Taking place in a fictional city called Satellite City, after an apocalyptic catastrophe nearly destroys humanity, a young librarian named Alia searches for a mythical book from the pre-Catastrophe era. There’s intrigue, sexual betrayal, battles between different tribes, dragons, superhumans, and so much more in just under thirty pages. That’s a lot, and the story ends a bit too abruptly. If there was ever a story that needed a serial treatment, it is this.
Who we are, how we present ourselves in public, and how we are seen by others are themes that crop up a number of times in this volume. In “No Other City,” by Ng Yi-Shen, Shanghai inexplicably disappears, causing its expatriates a sense of dislocation as the rest of the world forgets that the island ever existed. Its literal disappearance imposes a sense of erasure and cultural appropriation such as immigrants feel when they are disconnected from their culture. “Simulacrum,” by Ken Liu, looks at identity and erasure from a different angle. Liu tells the story of Paul Larimore, a man who records the entire life of his young daughter Anna. He relives those moments after he becomes estranged with her due to his infidelity. Told from the points of view of both father and daughter, “Simulacrum,” explores how technology reshapes our perceptions of truth and reality. As Anna states: “People shape and stage the experiences of their lives for the camera, go on vacations with one eye glued to the video camera. The desire to freeze reality is about avoiding reality” (p. 631). As social media dominate today’s culture, questions of authenticity, truth, and reality become more elusive as we’re confronted with questions about what is real and what is performative. Liu doesn’t just anticipate the role technology will play in our lives, but holds up a mirror to how we are now. Yet beneath these thought-provoking ideas is a heartbreaking story about a father and daughter.
The other strong story in this volume is Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.” With nods to Sherman Alexie, as well as George Saunders, Roanhorse’s story takes place at Vision Quest, an interactive media center that provides “authentic” experiences in the American past for tourists. One of those American pasts is Sedona Sweats, an interactive Wild West experience, complete with “authentic” interactions with American Indians. As the boss at Vision Quest puts it:
“Tourists don’t come to Sedona Sweats to live out a goddamn battle,” Boss says in the break room over lunch one day, “especially if the white guy loses. They come here to find themselves.” Boss waves his hand in the air in an approximation of something vaguely prayer-like. “It’s a spiritual experience we’re offering. Top quality. The fucking best.” (p. 430)
Its protagonist is a Native American actor who plays various “Indian” roles in the interactive media center. More comfortable with mainstream culture than his own, the unnamed protagonist is forced to determine what is an “authentic” Indian experience, if one can really be defined, and the way mainstream culture warps ideas of these experiences for its own entertainment. A young white tourist orders an experience with the protagonist to play the wise, spiritual native. Their encounter leads to awkward moments, but the two become unlikely friends (after learning that the white man has some Indian heritage and prompted by the man himself, the protagonist names him White Wolf). Their friendship, however, soon reveals itself to be just as questionable with a twist worthy of a Twilight Zone episode. If identity is based on experience, then what becomes of those experiences that can be appropriated or stereotyped? If we are estranged from our cultural roots, can we still be true arbiters of what is authenticity without feeling like culture vultures ourselves? These questions are at the heart of “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.”
Roanhorse tells this story through second person viewpoint, a conceit that could earn a few groans from well-read lovers of speculative fiction, but she uses it to good effect, questioning how stories can be appropriated by readers seeking “authentic” experiences of the marginalized. But, like all the best stories, this also offers a release, something like redemption for the protagonist as he lets go of conceptions of identity that were never his to begin with: “Nausea rolls over you. That same stretching sensation you get when you Relocate out of an Experience. Whiplash, and then … You let go” (p. 463). Like Liu, Roanhorse poses thought-provoking questions that get under the skin and stay there.
Both volumes of Sunspot Jungle offer a lot to consider and enjoy. Though at times the anthology can feel a bit too expansive (a few weaker selections could have been weeded out) and the themes and genres too disparate, editor Bill Campbell does an excellent job of organizing stories so that there is a natural flow between each. As with most anthologies, the weaker stories can affect the overall pleasure, but that is a minor complaint. Anyone looking for a good sample of contemporary speculative fiction, and wanting to expand their experience of the genre will benefit from having either one or both anthologies on their shelf.