1045 An Indigenous sci-fi moment

Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction
by Joshua Whitehead (editor)

Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
$21.95 /  9781551528113

Reviewed by Harper Campbell

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Joshua Whitehead’s new edited anthology, Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, comes on the heels of anthologies like Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (University of Arizona Press, 2012), Mitêwâcimowina: Indigenous Science Fiction and Speculative Storytelling (Theytus Books, 2016), and Love: Beyond Body, Space & Time (Bedside Press, 2016). With this work, and especially following the break-out success of authors like Vancouverite Cherie Dimaline, I think we can definitely say that we are experiencing an Indigenous sci-fi moment.

It really matters that so much space is being created by Native writers to tell Native sci-fi stories. Science fiction has seeped into the cultural subconscious of the world, providing our basic frame of reference for each successive wave of technological change. We understand that we have entered an age of technological modernity, and it isn’t enough to see the future as simply an extension of the past. Science fiction is what helps people all over the world make sense of a “normal” that is in perpetual change.

It is a serious shortcoming of science fiction, then, that it tends to gloss over colonialism and imperialism. The implicit view of most science fiction, after all, is one in which colonizers are the true vehicle of world-historical change. Science fiction is always saying — look how far we’ve come, look how much we’ve accomplished, see how unstoppable we’ve been. And what they mean is, look how unstoppable colonialism has been.

Joshua Whitehead at Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, January 2020. Courtesy Le Matin

And like colonizers, the implicit perspective of science fiction tends to see the cosmos as a field of pure resource. The tendency is to insist that the earth, our beloved green and blue earth, is after all just one planet, theoretically interchangeable with any other that could support life. And why stick to just one planet? Like Cecil Rhodes, the arch-imperialist, sci-fi aspires to annex the stars.

So when an Indigenous writer starts to put down the first words of a science fiction story, they must already be grappling with nothing less than the significance of the history of the world and what it will mean for the future. They must wrestle with the cosmic dimension of colonialism from the other side, from a perspective that could never say “Look how unstoppable we’ve been.”

Adam Garnet Jones. Photo courtesy Whistler Film Festival

Something like that exact phrase shows up in “History of the New World” by Adam Garnet Jones (Cree/Metis/Danish), one of the nine stories that makes up Love After the End. The setting is some time in the near future where climate change has withered the world. Scientists have managed to open up a portal to another dimension, where an alternate earth awaits. This new world is just like ours used to be: pristine, beautiful, bursting with ecological health. People are flocking through the portal en masse in the hope of starting a new beginning.

In the middle of all this are Thorah, a white woman, and Em, her Two-Spirit partner. We get to hear them talk over this new reality:

“I knew it,” Thorah said. Her mouth was curved down in a self-satisfied smile.

 “Knew what? That travel to a parallel universe was going to be possible in our lifetimes?”

 She frowned at me. “Of course not. But — humans have always been special. Through these last years it didn’t make sense that we might fail to find a solution. We’ve always been smart enough to think and build our way out of anything.”

 “Or we’ve been failing as long as we remember, and all of that ingenuity is a sign of failure.”

 Thorah rolled her eyes. “I don’t think we can call humans a failure. We built spaceships. We invented vaccines and…” She looked somewhere above my head, presumably scanning a vast imaginary landscape of possibilities. “… and spreadsheets.”

 I waited a moment for more, then shrugged.

 “Ugh — I hate when you get like this. You can’t deny that for our whole history we’ve been an unstoppable force, limited only by our imaginations and our determination. That’s who we are.”

Thorah, a white woman who truly loves her Indigenous partner and their child and yet can never seem to escape her privileged perspective, is very credibly drawn by Jones. As she and Em try to decide whether to go to the new world or not, we see just how different their perspectives are, and the consequences of acting on them.

Vancouver writer jaye simpson. Photo by Katie Hyslop, courtesy The Tyee

In jaye simpson’s “Ark of the Turtle’s Back,” by contrast, escaping earth is not a question of mere escapism. Drought has rendered the earth barely habitable, but there are communities that hang on, enduring the unendurable. As the story begins, we see the resilience of an Indigenous community that extracts water from plants by a method unknown to anyone else. But even this precarious existence is under threat, because the government has decided to force all Native people into off-world labour camps. Fortunately for our protagonists, there is an Ark, a spaceship capable of carrying them off to safety. There’s just one catch:

“We don’t have the fuel for everyone. The size of the Arks makes the journey longer, and, well, we’re using energy from Earth’s kinetic core to fuel the trip. Upon takeoff, the core will cool almost entirely and cause significant damage to the planet. The magnetic field protecting Earth from solar winds and solar radiation will collapse and essentially turn Earth into the new Mars. The takeoff alone will cause enough damage that both the Moon and Mars settlements could be in trouble. The math can’t confirm their safety, but at this point we need to leave. The amount of fuel needed to ensure the cryo-pods sustain between solar systems is large. This is all out of necessity.”

 “Necessity.” I don’t even realize I’m speaking. “Our people wouldn’t leave her, and you know it. We would stay until her last breath and go with her. We are the caretakers, and if she dies, we die too.”

simpson (Oji-Cree Saulteaux) imagines a situation where simple faithfulness to the earth is not enough. Is it possible to reverence the earth and also destroy her? It falls to simpson’s characters to figure that out.

Darcie Little Badger. Self-portrait

But sometimes, after all, the apocalypse is not all it’s been cracked up to be. In “Story for a Bottle” by Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache), a community has found its balance in a post-catastrophe world. But when our tween protagonist gets kidnapped, she discovers a vast, floating city, where the only entity she meets is a voice that comes over speakers hidden in the walls. Then she puts two and two together and remembers the tales she used to hear:

The story goes: centuries ago, people were more likely to prepare for the end of the world than try to save it. A group of rich folks decided to build floating cities and live in the middle of the ocean, far away from the land’s troubles. Two cities were launched into the Atlantic. One sank and killed everyone on board. The other city — New America — disappeared.

 Some claim that New America is still out there, hiding, dying. A few people remain alive, but their numbers aren’t great enough to keep the city running. Others say that the city itself — which was equipped with advanced AI — is lonely.

In Little Badger’s story, the most futuristic of places can be the eeriest, and the real apocalypse is not when nature asserts itself, but when human greed and fear turn in on themselves.

So the authors collected in Love After the End have given these questions some deep thought. At the same time, though, this isn’t just a collection of Indigenous sci-fi; every story in this collection was written by a queer or Two-Spirit author and features queer and Two-Spirit characters.

There’s a deep connection between queerness and science fiction. Science fiction tends to de-sentimentalize the status quo, make it seem less inevitable and more happenstance. Perhaps one reason queer liberation has become so prominent in the last fifty years is because people have become so accustomed to the idea that our lives will be constantly upended by change.

Joshua Whitehead at the University of Calgary, 2019. Courtesy YouTube

There’s a lot of friction between this idea and the idea of being Two-Spirit, however. That’s why editor Joshua Whitehead, in his introduction to the book, scorns “the contemporary erasures and appropriations of the term Two-Spirit by settler queer cultures who idealize, mysticize, and romanticize our hi/stories in order to generate a queer genealogy for settler sexualities.”

From a colonial perspective, as from the implicit perspective of science fiction, Two-Spiritedness is just one more combination of sociological possibilities, just as the earth is merely one more planet. Two-Spiritedness becomes an inspiration for new social relationships, but its particularity, the fact that it’s grounded in real Indigenous communities rather than a novel like The Left Hand of Darkness, is erased.

Yet at the same time, there is a way in which being queer and Indigenous is even “queerer than queer,” as Whitehead puts it:

I craft a theory of Indigiqueerness by rejecting queer and LGBT as signposts of my identity, instead relying on the sovereignty of traditional language, such as Two-Spirit, and terminology we craft for ourselves, Indigiqueer. How does queer Indigeneity upset or upend queerness? Are we queerer than queer?

In other words, in a society saturated by colonial imagination, it takes a special kind of queerness to imagine something else. If queerness is what the dominant culture never expected or accounted for, then there are aspects of queer Indigeneity that have never yet been expected or accounted for.

Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler. Courtesy CBC

This theme shows up in “Abacus” by Nathan Adler (Anishnaabe/Jewish), the story that opens the collection. In contrast to many of the other stories, this one puts romance in the foreground. Dayan is an Anishinaabek teen living on a space station off Jupiter’s moon Io. The station where he lives is a kind of puppy mill, churning out artificially super-intelligent cybernetic rats for use by human families.

Abacus is one such rat, programmed to be Anishinaabek. In ve-ar (virtual reality) he can take human form and meet with Dayan, who is only too lonely on this isolated space station. They are soon drawn to each other.

The twenty-fourth century is friendly towards love between two boys — but not so much towards love between a boy and a cybernetic rat:

Dayan knew his grandmother was rather traditional, not that she would object because he was dating a boy — that particular stigma had gone out of fashion ages ago — human-AI sexual relationships on the other hand, were an entirely different story.

Adler seems to be positing a new queerness, a queerer-than-queerness. Perhaps the boundary between human and non-human is after all not one worth policing.

This expanded realm of love might sound like the old sci-fi perspective — just another one of the endless recombinations the universe has in store. But Adler puts a specifically Indigenous spin on it when he shows us this conversation between Dayan and his mother, Eva. Dayan asks:

“If the earth is our mother, and the moon is our grandmother — what does that make Io? What does that make Jupiter?”

Eva paused in the doorway. “Relatives too. Aunties. Uncles. Cousins. They’ve always watched over us, just like Dibik Giizis. Just like Nokomis.”

So perhaps, just as the distant planets are only more distant relations, the distance between human and non-human is bound within the same relational web. And so too, perhaps, the unaccountability of queerness itself is only a further tangle in our web of relations and responsibilities.

Because it is important to think about these questions, and because it will help you see the past, the future, the whole cosmos from the viewpoint of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer people, you urgently need to read a book like Love After the End. Let this new generation of writers draw you into their universe. You will find that it is, in fact, the universe in which you have always lived.

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Harper Campbell

Harper Campbell has published poetry in Salish Seas: An Anthology of Text + Image (Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast, 2011), an essay in The Salt Chuck City Review (volume 1, 2019), and translations of the Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar in Columbia Journal (forthcoming) and Ezra (forthcoming). He has an honours degree in philosophy and Asian studies from the University of British Columbia.

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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