#tobyreads: Societal Rules and Their Deconstruction


I’ve always had a fondness for narratives in which a character gradually comes to understand a culture that’s initially alien to them. This might stem from coming to reading via science fiction and fantasy, where such a thing can be handled literally, but I’m happy to see these wherever they may come: realistic or fantastic, literal or metaphorical.

The title of Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria tells you, on one level, what to expect: there’s a place called Olondria, and the protagonist finds himself a stranger there. But that doesn’t do this rich, surprising narrative justice. There is the central story, in which a young man visits a distant country and finds himself enmeshed in deep societal conflicts; there’s a surreal ghost story; there’s a loving and complex meditation on reading, writing, and language. And there’s the worldbuilding itself, in which Samatar creates a series of societies with cultures that seem neatly constructed, rather than serving as echoes of the familiar.And there’s the way that the narrative nests other stories within itself, even as it also delves into the nature of storytelling.

In an interview with Sarah McCarry, Samatar notes that, “I do think there’s a connection between my love for languages and my love for speculative fiction. Both of them ask you to dwell in uncertainty.” That uncertainty can lead to such a compelling narrative is an impressive feat in and of itself, I’d say.

As a fan of novellas, I’ve found Caketrain to be a reliable place to turn for smart, visceral reading at that length. They’ve released work from the likes of Matt Bell, Sarah Rose Etter, and Sara Levine, all of which falls pretty soundly in the “unfuckwithable” camp. With that in mind, I opened up A.T. Grant’s novella Collected Alex and found myself reading the story of a narrator who, as a child, was given a gift: a dead body to act as his companion (and for him to carry around). The narrative shifts through a series of permutations, all of which nod in the direction of one’s identity, and the conflicts between how we shape it and how it can be bestowed upon us. And it does an absolutely brilliant job of evoking the moment when, as a child, we first become of the order of the adult world without necessarily grasping its logic or rationale.

The underlying logic of societies plays a huge role in Samuel R. Delany’s 1976 novel Trouble on Triton — though for all that it explores how technology will change our identities (both on a personal and a societal level), it’s also one rooted in mythology. (Kathy Acker’s introduction to the 1996 edition, where she expounds on this, is fantastic.) The plot follows a young man named Bron Helstrom, living in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system, and several planetary societies are at war (or are on the brink of it). And while it’s largely through his eyes that we see the story unfold, it’s worth mentioning that the unfolding of Bron’s character is as crucial as anything here. Simply put: Bron may view himself as the everyman hero of his own narrative, but events suggest otherwise.

There’s also plenty of deeply prescient observation on Delany’s part happening here. An early discussion of debates over perpetual surveillance of a population could have been excerpted from today’s news reports. There’s also a perennial question of what gender and sexual identities mean in a society where each can, via technology, be made fluid. And at the center of it all is a protagonist who seems to exist in a perpetual state of Not Getting It — which makes for a story that never goes where you might expect.

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