Anthologies are tricky things. While useful, they can feel repetitive in their subjects and in their content. Every once in a while, though, an anthology will tackle an entirely new topic, drawing on established and unfamiliar writers, and casting existing literature in a fresh light.
So it is with editor Grace Dillon's, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, which takes indigenous authors familiar and unfamiliar, and places them in the context of the science-fiction genre, simultaneously expanding notions of where indigenous literature influences can be felt, and exploding limiting conceptions of what indigenous literature can and does do. It's an original and exciting anthology, and an enjoyment to read, from cover to cover.
The anthology begins with an introduction that lucidly describes the editor's project and the importance of the anthology, as well as an overview of the book's structure. As Dillon puts it: "Walking the Clouds opens up sf to reveal Native presence. It suggests that indigenous sf is not so new—just overlooked—and advocates that indigenous authors should write more of it." Dillon's selections fulfill the promise of the introduction, featuring 16 different indigenous authors, not only from America, but also from Australia and New Zealand.
The anthology is broken into five sections, each described in-depth in the introduction:
• Native Slipstream is "a species of speculative fiction" that "views time as pasts, presents and futures that flow together like currents in a navigable stream."
• Contact has stories "that challenge readers to recognize their positions with regard to the diasporic conditions of contemporary Native peoples."
• Indigenous Science and Sustainability "juxtaposes Western science with what can be thought of as 'Indigenous scientific literacies.'"
• Native Apocalypse seeks not to strictly relive tragedy or imagine alternative futures, but to show "the ruptures, the scars, and the trauma in its efforts ultimately to provide healing and a return bimaadiziwin, or a state of balance."
• Biskaabiiyang, or "Returning to Ourselves," involves "discovering how personally one is affected by colonization, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-Native Apocalypse world."
I found the explication of the thinking behind the sections illuminating in a way that gave added depth to the stories. And, oh, how fantastic the stories are. Featuring work from Gerald Vizenor, Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz and a host of other talented authors known both for their work in Native literature and science fiction, these stories cover a variety of topics—but it's also interesting to see similar considerations across the works, especially when they appear in the same sections.
While it's impossible to touch on every story, and one could pull out any of them as an example of fantastic writing and deep intelligence, Sherman Alexie's "Distances" particularly stands out. Alexie presents a post-apocalyptic world in which the predictions of Wovoka, the Paiute prophet and holy man, have come to pass, and all the whites have been run out of North America as a result of the Ghost Dances. However, the continent remains a violent and fearful place. "Urbans," city Indians who left the cities to return to the reservations, are outcasts and kept separate from the "Skins," Indians who already resided on the reservations. Our narrator, a Skin, loves one of the Urbans. It's a forbidden love, and he can only watch as she decays from what is considered a "white man's disease." In the end, our narrator seems to find solace in an abandoned transistor radio he secreted away from a burned house:
Last night I held my transistor radio in my hands, gently, as if it were alive. I examined it closely, searching for some flaw, some obvious damage. But there was nothing, no imperfection I could see. If there was something wrong, it was not evident by the smooth, hard plastic of the outside. All the mistakes would be on the inside, where you couldn't see, couldn't reach.
With its atmosphere of loss and painfully beautiful lyrical writing, "Distances" seems to suggest that the capacity for mistakes and violence is inside all humans, regardless of race, and that a better future depends on greater cooperation and symbiosis between peoples, rather than separation or elimination. It's certainly a story representative of the anthology's originality and success.