Reviews: The Fan: Empathy, Bridges, and Committing to Love

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By Carole McDonnell

Hello, Dear Lovers of Specfic:

Today I’m pondering the power of art to make you see the darkness of your own heart. In this case, what I saw was my own cynicism. But, eh, I’m not going to lose that cynicism anytime soon. So, onward.

book_azanian-300wAzanian Bridges, by Nick Wood, 218 pages, NewCon Press (April 1, 2016) ISBN-10: 1910935123, ISBN-13: 978-1910935125, $15.99

Knowing zilch about South African politics, I first assumed “Azanian Bridges” was some kind of play on words on “Arabian Nights.” Well, it might be but that would be pushing it. “Azania,” it turns out, was the rebel name for South Africa.

Have  you ever had one of those harrowing moments when you realize you’re reading a book that is miles above your intellectual level? And that although you’re enjoying said book you totally know that you could be getting way more insight, fun, intellectual joy out of the book if you only were more…ya know…smarter and more politically savvy?

Well, that’s what happened to me when I read Nick Woods’ Azanian Bridges? Confusion is something that happens to me a lot when I read science fiction. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? All that entering into the character’s mind, motivation, soul. All that stumbling around the worldbuilding until one falls in with the writer’s stride. But the whole political background and all those African words sprinkled into the text without an ounce of explanation threw me! (Yes, I’ll admit it; I, a Black woman, tend to understand the odd European words sprinkled throughout American SF more than I understand African words.)

The story’s protagonist is Martin, a white male psychotherapist who works in a mental hospital.  The setting is an alternate Earth that is much different from our own. More importantly to Martin, who lives in South Africa, apartheid still exists. Martin is well-meaning, and —being white—privileged. But he is aware of his privilege, somewhat. He understands racism, and believes himself to be an enlightened part of a racist society. But really, if one is so enlightened, why use a Black person in your iffy experiment? Well, because you fall in line with all those Mad Scientists who always want to try out their newfangled machines. (Think of all those human guinea pigs with “worthless lives” one finds in Mad Scientists movies. The countless developmentally-disabled, suicidal, poor, or criminals on death row. Yes, I’m looking at you, Lawn Mower Man and Flowers for Algernon. Heck, think of real life cases such as Miss Evers’ Boys.) So yes, Martin’s guinea pig is a Black patient named Sibusiso who has had a breakdown. I’ll just add here that several times Martin reminded me of the POV character/persona in Macklemore’s  White Privilege. That desire to understand, identify with, and perhaps heal the “other” — except that, IMHO, Macklemore’s protag has way more self-questioning going on than this psychotherapist does.

So, our psychotherapist-inventor Martin invents an Empathy Enhancer. Why, I hear you asking, should one need an empathy enhancer? Ah, Dear Reader, if you have not had knock-down drag-out fights on facebook about socio-political events, you would not understand! Quite simply, the reason one needs an empathy enhancer because words get in the way. Heck, everything gets in the way. But a true bridge of the mind would help, wouldn’t it?

Or perhaps not.

After news gets out about the invention — as news about inventions often do— the bad guys want the Empathy Enhancer for their own evil reasons and the good guys want it for their own “good” reasons. There is much tension; think thriller meets 1984 meets Cold War suspense story.

I, of course, got to thinking: Just what is empathy? Especially when it’s being shown by the privileged? A lot of shedding of self is required to truly empathizer with the odd, the weird, the less-than, the non-privileged. The book is awesome and I could almost say that it might become a classic of South African spec-fic writing. Except for my two nits. The first is that it really does need a glossary. A book that explores bridges in human communication should have one, right? The second is that it feels weirdly idealistic and optimistic.

shatterworld-300wShatterworld, Lelia Rose Foreman, 220 pages, ISBN-10: 1938679083, ISBN-13: 978-1938679087, $7.01

Shatterworld is the first Christian spec-fic book I’ve read in ages. To be entirely too honest, I tend to avoid them because I fear hokeyness, unoriginality, preachiness and mimicry. I fear finding myself stuck in the pages of a book that is wannabe Tolkien/Lewis or Left Behind. Christian though I am, whenever I read Christian books, I usually peeve, complain, and quarrel with every other sentence. Yeah, I’m being mean.  But I do this with Black spec-fic writers and feminist spec-fic writers as well.

I gotta say though, that I actually liked this book, and I’m actually tempted to read the sequels. That’s not to say I didn’t find myself groaning a few times, because seriously, reading Christian fiction requires a certain mindset and a certain acquiescence to some of the stranger requirements of Christian fiction.

First, let me get this out of the way. Shatterworld is primarily a young adult creature features book. Thus, all the required tropes such as teenaged rebellion, generational gap issues, finding one’s self, etc., are present. The novel recounts the voyage of the Star Flower and its settling of New Earth by pilgrims who fled their oppressive planet. The comparisons between American colonial history and New Earth colonization are evident but there are subtle differences. The most important difference being that the natives of New Earth are not humanoid at all. Of course, depending on one’s ability and willingness to empathize with the natives, one might see even humans as non-humans. But, in this case, we have entered the realm of “creature features.”

The star-traveling pilgrims are incredibly respectful of the aboriginal sea-dwelling hexacrab natives of New Earth. They struggle to understand each other’s phyla/species/order/kingdom and grow to understand each other’s linguistics, culture, history, and fears. Our Pilgrims are very careful about bringing theology into their conversation and so far — the book is part of a trilogy—have not set about attempting to save any hexacrab souls. There is no notion that the hexacrabs are the Hivites/Perrizites/Jebusites etc., who must be overthrown in order for God’s people to have their Promised Land/manifest destiny. There is sharing of resources and goodwill between the pioneers and the hexacrabs who are seen as perhaps members of The Creator’s Other Folds. In short, these settlers are perfect Christians.

The typical trope would be to show how horrible, self-righteous, and disrespectful religious folks can be. But these multicultural Amish/Mennonite-like community of settlers are anything but. This depiction prompts the reader to ask the question: Is the writer challenging Christians or non-Christians by this depiction? For instance, what would the United States be like if all (or at least the majority of) Christians were truly respectful of each other and aware that they are pilgrims upon earth along with all God’s children?  Or, (to the non-Christian), is it not possible for good faithful religious people to exist?

The depiction of such perfect people is a bit of a challenge, methinks. Christian books might allow for misunderstandings between good people, but a secular reader might feel look at this scenario askance. From our side of the universe, these true believers are a bit unbelievable. Call me a cynic but there are simply too many different hurdles inherent in this situation (I repeat, the natives are hexacrabs!) for true empathy and understanding to exist.

The book isn’t flawless. There are too many characters, the book is light on description, and some sections feel rushed. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not particularly bothered by a few flaws.  But I liked Shatterworld. I loved this settler community and the hexacrab lore. But once again, the cynic in me resists.

forget-me-not-300wForget Me Not. Director: Kei Horie Writer: Mizuho Hirayama (novel “Wasurenai to Chikatta Boku ga Ita”), Satoko Okazaki, Kei Horie  Producer: Masahiro Yoshida, Hirohisa Mukuju, Takatoshi Watanabe Release Date: March 28, 2015   Runtime: 94 min. Fantasy Japanese

Everyone once in a while one encounters a little unknown flick that stays in one’s heart forever. I encountered one, and I am so happy I did. It’s one of those sweet slice of stories the Japanese do so well, and it is seriously bittersweet.

The story is about Takashi Hayama a high school student. One day, he bumps into a girl, Azusa Oribe, and they click. He wonders, though, what school she attends. She tells him she goes to his school. However, no one at his school has heard of her.

Well, is she a ghost that only he can see? No. But what is worse? A ghost whom no one can see or a human being whom no one remembers? The latter.

For some reason that remains unexplained throughout the film — although Azusa Oribe often falls in despair wondering why this strange thing has happened to her — Azusa is immediately forgotten when she leaves people. It’s a terrifying curse of “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” Even her father forgets her existence. She volunteers at an old-age home because the old folks are used to forgetting people. Now that Takashi has noticed her, the question is, is he immune to the effects of this curse or will Takashi also forget her existence when they aren’t together? The situation is devastating because they are in love.

I’m going into spoiler territory here… sooo…

At first it doesn’t seem that he does forget her. She often goes to his house to meet his family for dinner. To his family, each meeting is new. But Azusa seems to always know her. But then, Azusa realizes that Takashi doesn’t remember her at all. In fact, in order to prevent himself from forgetting her, he has created a memory system full of camera files, notes to himself, photos. The viewer and Azusa both begin to understand the toll all this effort is taking on Takashi. Azusa enters his room one day when he is not at home. Once again, she introduces herself to his sister as Takashi’s friend, and the sister allows her into his room. The question she ponders is this: “Does anyone have the right to take away someone’s memory?”

Azusa then proceeds to remove all his photos of her from the wall. When he returns he isn’t aware of the loss of her because he had been forgetting her anyway. And yet, there is a strange feeling of loss. He doesn’t know why. One day he finds a folder in his computer called “Azusa.” He opens it and sees all the film he has taken with this Azusa person whom he doesn’t know. There are all his notes and memos to himself about her. What’s more, there’s his note to himself: “Do not forget Azusa Oribe.” He understands that he is the only person who continually knows this girl’s existence and he has committed himself to her existence. She needs someone to now that she exists.

Devastated that he has forgotten her, he seeks her out. He carries a picture of her on his cellphone but when a girl arrives telling him that Azusa couldn’t meet him, he doesn’t look at it. So, of course, he doesn’t realize the girl speaking to him is Azusa.  After she leaves, he looks at the picture and realizes Azusa has just spoken to him. Then follows one of the most heartbreaking last shots I’ve seen in a long while: the film ends with him repeating her name and running in the direction she left. His repetition of her name is a desperate calling to her, of course, but it also feels as if he is repeating her name in order that he will engrave this person’s fleeting existence into his mind.

This is one of those movies that could touch the heart of many teenagers. It’s beautiful and tragic and  — although the ending feels like a death — there is no corpse. Only a mystery and the hint of a good person doomed to a strangely-cursed life. No doubt a few kids might consider it slow and a bit corny. But, I’m telling you, the horror of that unexplained curse and the depiction of the fragility of memory will stay with them.

Happy creativity, all.

Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.

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