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So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy
edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan
Arsenal Pulp Press, 270 pages

So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy
Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson has recently published a collection of short stories, Skin Folk, in addition to her first two novels, Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber. She has lived in Toronto, Ontario, since 1977 after spending most of her first 16 years in the Caribbean, where she was born.

Nalo Hopkinson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Salt Roads
SF Site Review: Skin Folk
SF Site Review: Brown Girl In The Ring
SF Site Review:Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction
SF Site Review: Midnight Robber
SF Site Review: Brown Girl in the Ring
Interview: Nalo Hopkinson
Excerpt: Midnight Robber
Interview: Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson Short Story

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

Colonization has been a common topic of science fiction for ages, generally in one of two ways: either well-intentioned adventurers wander to other planets to learn about the natives and convert them to their own point of view, or aliens venture from their own domain to enslave or destroy the innocent society of which the protagonist is a member. These two types of stories have spawned hundreds and thousands of variations, some more nuanced and complex than others, from The War of the Worlds to Star Trek, from Edmond Hamilton to Ursula K. Le Guin.

Colonization in fantasy stories is a less common trope, though perhaps the Dark Lords stomping through so many Tolkienesque tales are analogues to crusaders and conquistadores hell-bent to gain converts and slaves, spreading annihilation in their wake.

Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan have, with So Long Been Dreaming edited an anthology that we needed long ago, an anthology that questions and corrects and lectures and screams. Unfortunately, it is also an anthology that theorizes the signifiers of otherness with obvious allegories and smothers epistemic violence with the smooches of Earth Mothers. I hope it is not the last anthology to reimagine both real and dreamed-up colonizations, because the subject is a valuable one, and because this particular anthology is only occasionally successful.

In an afterword, Uppinder Mehan offers his thoughts on what the stories in So Long Been Dreaming are and do:

Some of the stories in this anthology might be categorized as science fiction, some as speculative fiction, and some as fantastic, but they all broaden their labels. The simple binaries of native/alien, technologist/pastoralist, colonizer/colonized are all brought into question by writers who make use of both thematic and linguistic strategies that subtly subvert received language and plots. ... Postcolonial visions are both a questioning of colonial/imperialist practices and conceptions of the native or the colonized, and an attempt to represent the complexities of identity that terms such as "native" and "colonized" tend to simplify.
The best stories in the anthology do, indeed, put some flesh on the bones of this academic jargon monster, but even some of the best stories tend to read as if they were written to be used as exemplars in an undergraduate course on postcolonial theory. The premise of the anthology too often provides cover for authors to indulge in pamphleteering and to let their characters pontificate for pages and pages.

The two best stories in the collection, Vandana Singh's "Delhi" and Greg van Eekhout's "Native Aliens," are also the only stories that don't read like they were originally intended to be taught to students. They are stories that allow complexity of interpretation and that allow readers to construct their own meanings from the narrative.

"Delhi" is a particularly good example of this, telling the tale of a man who can see into possible pasts and futures and who is charged with finding someone whose fate is a mystery to him. It is a truly postcolonial story according to all of the criteria laid out by Mehan and Hopkinson, but also a subtle tale of possession, humanity, and history that is compelling to read and written with a great sensitivity to language and detail. Singh combines a few different SF concepts in a rich and vital story, one that succeeds at provoking thought by creating multifaceted characters and situations.

"Native Aliens" is somewhat less successful, partly because the science fictional story it uses as counterpoint is less compelling than the mainstream story that is the meat of the tale, but it is ambitious and carefully told. The narrative alternates between scenes from the twentieth-century life of a Dutch-Indonesian family and scenes from the twenty-fourth century life of a man being returned to Earth because that's where his people originally came from, even though he knows nothing of them and his body has adapted to the local environment. The twentieth-century scenes are sparingly and effectively constructed, while the twenty-third century scenes are tantalizing, causing me, for one, to hope van Eekhout expands "Native Aliens" into a longer form.

Other stories in the book deserve some attention, though they are unsatisfying in one way or another. "Rachel" by Larrissa Lai is a great idea -- retelling some of the events of the movie Blade Runner from the point of view of one of its characters, but the story is more tease than treat. Nonetheless, Lai's technique is a smart one, and I could imagine a gratifying anthology of such stories, wherein writers retell, for instance, Gulliver's Travels and Farnham's Freehold and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Tobias Buckell takes a stab at retelling quite a few stories in "Necahual," where everything from the Aztecs to Heinlein is thrown in a blender and turned into a space opera smoothie that would have benefited from having some of its expositional chunks strained out. Buckell's is the last story in the book, and it complements well the first, "Deep End" by Nisi Shawl, an unpretentious SF story with some provocative ideas and not much else. Both stories have virtues, but the premise of this anthology has pushed the authors, who have each done better work elsewhere, to sculpt their narratives with a preference for theme and at the cost of other elements.

Just as Hugo Gernsback required early science fiction stories to be technological diagrams, the worst stories in So Long Been Dreaming are political diagrams whose narratives bend and strain against the rigors of their authors' ideologies. The following paragraph from "Journey into the Vortex" by Maya Khankhoje is unfortunately not unique:

This is one of the many truths that she understood but failed to accept: that men are rewarded for destroying life and women for creating it. But that seems to be in the nature of all dualities, for how can we see the radiance of goodness when there is no shadow of evil to set it off?
Many of the stories have the tone or structure of folktales, a form where the tendency to moralize proves difficult to overcome, though some readers may have more tolerance for it than I. Nalo Hopkinson's previous anthology, Mojo: Conjure Stories, contains folktale stories that are far more engaging and entertaining than any contained here, a fact that again shows how hobbled the authors were by their sense of duty to the anthology's concept.

There are other stories in So Long Been Dreaming, some of them not terrible (stories by Eden Robinson, Karin Lowachee, and others), some of them quite bad. Readers who desire art that is a form of propaganda will enjoy much of the book; the rest of us are left with only intermittent pleasures. It is, I suppose, the danger any anthology of this sort faces, the danger of choking on its own best intentions. There are worse crimes in the world, and I hope more editors and writers will tackle the difficult, perhaps impossible, task of rewriting the future history of colonialism. If they do, So Long Been Dreaming will be justified as a founding text and celebrated as a nudge toward greater things.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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