Review: So Long Been Dreaming

So Long Been Dreaming ed. by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan

I first stumbled upon So Long Been Dreaming over at The Hathor Legacy, where Maria gave it a glowing review. Its subtitle is Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, something which intrigued me. While I look for science fiction and fantasy that doesn’t involve the colonization narrative or are based on medieval Europe, I think only The Gaslight Dogs addressed a colonial narrative at all. (Karin Lowachee, who wrote The Gaslight Dogs, actually contributed a story to this collection.) I checked the Georgia PINES library system and discovered that there was exactly one copy of So Long Been Dreaming in circulation in all of Georgia. That, to me, is a bingo.

So Long Been Dreaming is a collection of short science fiction and fantasy stories written solely by authors of color. Some deal with war, some deal with assimilation, some deal with colonization–but all deal with the binary of the colonized and the colonizer, the native and the alien. By decentralizing traditionally Western stories, these authors get at some deeper truths concerning postcolonialism.

I don’t usually read short story collections by different authors; heck, I don’t usually read short story collections at all. (This is the second one I’ve ever read. No, I’m not kidding.) The quality tends to be a little uneven, and So Long Been Dreaming is no exception. There are wonderful short stories here, as well as other short stories that fall short of their potential. But even though some of these latter stories are fleeting or disregard the traditional plot structure (even short stories need those!), they still propose interesting viewpoints and decentralize the typical Western eye of speculative fiction, so they’re not a total loss as a contribution to postcolonial literature.

So Long Been Dreaming is split up into five sections–The Body, Future Earth, Allegory, Encounters with the Alien, and Re-Imagining the Past. Encounters with the Alien, simply because it is so large, is the best section, containing three of the best stories in the collection. Re-Imagining the Past is the least effective, perhaps because it comes after such a wonderful section and perhaps because the alternate history to some of the stories feels a little slapdash. Most of the stories in this collection are science fiction, since it naturally lends itself to a colonial narrative to deconstruct, but there are two fantasy stories included that make very good use of the genre; “When Scarabs Multiply” and “The Blue Road: A Fairy Tale”.

After a pair of mildly disappointing stories, the collection really picks up with Larissa Lai’s “Rachel”, which reimagines Rachel from Blade Runner as Chinese-American. The idea of coloring a character, as it were, is something that’s not new to fandom–I seem to recall there’s a small festival doing just that. But, as ever, I’m excited to see anything fannish in print alongside work that’s not, so I quite enjoyed “Rachel” on more than one level. The collection continues very strongly until the aforementioned last section, which I suppose suffers the same problem as the first two stories–they’re not fleshed out enough or obey traditional plot structure enough.

But the meat of the collection is quite good. The best stories are “When Scarabs Multiply”, “The Blue Road: A Fairy Tale”, “Trade Winds”, and “Lingua Franca”–the last of which is, I feel, the best story in the entire collection. “When Scarabs Multiply” is written by Nnedi Okorafor, credited as Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu here, a Nigerian-American author you might know for penning Who Fears Death, which, if her short story indicates anything about her skill, I need to read very soon. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Sahara, as an egalitarian society reverts to an oppressive patriarchy. The writing is wonderful, the worldbuilding deft for such a short space, and the main character, a young girl, is interestingly complex. The poet Wayde Compton’s “The Blue Road: A Fairy Tale” ponders the narrative of a gentleman of color who immigrates to a city and assimilates more successfully than any other immigrant–but we’re left with the haunting image of him as a compromised human being. “Trade Winds”, by devorah major, plays on one of my favorite implications of science fiction–how do you truly understand a language that is so alien to you? It plays with it so beautifully that you almost don’t realize it’s a horror story until too late.

But I feel “Lingua Franca” is the standout of this collection. Carole McDonnell, the author, has only written one novel, Wind Follower, and you can bet it’s been put immediately on my reading list. “Lingua Franca” takes place on a world where humans cannot hear or speak; instead, they sign. But increasing pressure from the speaking humans they trade with has started a trend of surgeries that allow the colonized people to speak and hear, but it goes against one of the main religious tenets of their culture. It follows one woman as she struggles to keep her culture alive even as the next generation turns away from it. It’s impressively well done, and, as the best stories in this collection do, leaves the reader with a haunting image. So Long Been Dreaming is well worth a rental if only to read “Lingua Franca”, but it would be a shame to ignore all the other amazing postcolonial stories collected here.

Bottom line: The quality of the short stories in So Long Been Dreaming can be variant, but it’s still an amazing collection of postcolonial science fiction, with two fantasy stories thrown in for good measure. Carole McDonnell’s haunting “Lingua Franca” steals the show, but each story decentralizes the typical Western viewpoint of speculative fiction and contributes to postcolonial literature.

I rented this book from the public library.

10 thoughts on “Review: So Long Been Dreaming

  1. Cooool! That cover is gorgeous. Not necessarily saying I’m going to go crazy and read the whole book (not a short story fan either), but I’d like to try the ones you liked best.

  2. This sounds like an amazing compilation – even if it is uneven. I like the concept of ‘coloring a character’ as you describe with Rachel. It gets at that ‘white as default’ problem.

    • It’s quite interesting. Fandom has really done some spectacular things with it recently- there’s a vogue for chromatic casting at the moment (casting actors of color in franchises that nearly all white). Some of The Lord of the Rings ones are great. (Jason Momoa as Aragorn? Yes, please!)

  3. Pingback: Review: Firebirds « The Literary Omnivore

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