Read A Collection Of Science Fiction With The Science Friday Book Club
This is a part of our fall Book Club conversation about the short story collection, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By Writers of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl. Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or record a voice message as you read on the Science Friday VoxPop app.
A planet inhabited by parasitic life forms that turn human settlers into demonic figures. An aging woman who just wants to live in peace in a “dumb house” with no technological upgrades. A woman who starts to experience the presence of otherworldly visitors. A taxi driver who takes tourists from other planets on rides far above the New York City skyline.
And, in the case of Darcie Little Badger’s short story “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath,” a young woman helps the last breaths of the dying, literally their souls or “shimmers,” depart for the next adventure. That is, until she is asked to track down one that has committed the unthinkable: murder and cannibalism of other souls.
All these are stories in the Nisi Shawl-edited collection, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By People Of Color, this fall’s Science Friday Book Club pick. Over the next five weeks, we’ll talk about stories from the book, starting with Little Badger’s story about burdens—literal, metaphorical, and metaphysical.
SciFri Book Club captain Christie Taylor kicks off the first in of a series of conversations about short stories from New Suns with Aisha Matthews, managing editor of The Journal of Science Fiction, and Darcie Little Badger, a Lipan Apache writer and author of the New Suns story “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath.”
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Aisha Matthews is managing editor of the Journal of Science Fiction and the director of Literary Programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity conference in Washington, D.C..
Darcie Little Badger is author of ‘Kelsey and the Burdened Breath’ (New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By People of Color, Rebellion, 2019).
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. What if New York City tourists were literally from outer space? Or what about this? What if when people and animals died, their life force stuck around, and you could carry your long dead family dog around in a backpack?
Well, all of these realities are possible in our fall Science Friday Book Club pick, New Suns, Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. Science Friday producer and our book club chief, Christie Taylor, has more.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: For me, a good science fiction story can be like a thought experiment that takes you to new places in your understanding of the world we live in now. But in the early decades, science fiction was dominated overwhelmingly by white men.
It was only this year that Octavia Butler, a Black writer with sci-fi’s highest awards to her name, even made it to The New York Times bestseller list, 14 years after her death. The book in question? A story about an authoritarian United States called Parable of the Sower, which she wrote back in 1993.
New Suns, which was published in 2019, is named for a quote from Octavia Butler. It’s a nod to the extremely talented crop of science fiction and fantasy writers inside, whose stories can take all of us to places never before imagined by Asimov, Heinlein, or Bradbury.
So we’re going to talk about New Suns and some of the stories in it for the next five weeks with help from my guest, Aisha Matthews, who is managing editor of the Journal of Science Fiction and director of literary programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity Conference. Hey there, Aisha.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Hey, Christie. Thanks for having me.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What kinds of research do academics like yourself publish in a journal of science fiction?
AISHA MATTHEWS: Yeah, so for example, my most recent published work was a paper about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the idea of conspiracy. And it was called “Conspiracies of the Flesh,” talking about the ways that The Handmaid’s Tale, in particular, the very patriarchal government kind of hides the conspiracy itself in women’s bodies, in women are the only ones who can be infertile, for instance, in their society. It’s never the men.
So it’s that kind of argument of trying to both prove that point, but also tease out what the larger kind of what we can take away from how we deal with our bodies in that vein.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So going to our book club pick for this month, New Suns, the title itself is this reference to a quote by the late science fiction author, Octavia Butler, where she says, “There is nothing new under the suns, but there are new suns.” Aisha, how do you interpret this quote, especially in the context of a book that is specifically sharing the stories of writers of color?
AISHA MATTHEWS: I mean, I think in a very literal sense, looking at space faring and futurism, there are new suns. There are new places out there.
But also in reading kind of some of the intro and outro to the book, it sounds like these new suns are meant to be beacons of light in ethnic spaces, doing these ethnic futurisms, kind of reminding us that while we may think everything in science fiction has been done before, there are people of color with different perspectives that haven’t been put into the mainstream.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So as you’re turning an academic eye to the wealth of writing out there, what kinds of themes or nuances are you seeing in work by Black and brown writers that people might miss if they’re only reading Robert Heinlein, et cetera?
AISHA MATTHEWS: Yeah, so I think authors of color, in particular, have a different experience of embodiment in the world than people who are not considered people of color. So those examinations of the body, what it feels like to occupy brown bodies in a space that is still predominantly eurocentric, I think is one of the bigger themes of really contextualizing different cultural experiences.
And the whole point of cultural futurism is really to show that we can imagine a technologically advanced future, a socially advanced future that hasn’t been sanitized of all that ethnicity. Cultures that have in the past been considered primitive are no longer seen as incompatible with science and technology.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: OK, so we’re going to look at one specific story today. Perfect for fall, I think. We’ve got a kind of ghost story by a Lipan Apache writer, Darcie Little Badger, called “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath.”
Our protagonist, Kelsey, is trying to solve the mystery of a murderous soul, which we call a burdened breath in this story, with the help of her long dead family dog, Pal. Aisha, what did you think about this story?
AISHA MATTHEWS: So I absolutely loved it. I read a lot of futureisms of color. My specialty is in Afrofuturism, so I’m very familiar with the kind of haunting narrative.
And one of the things I found most interesting was that Darcie created this world where people kind of universally accept and can witness the soul through the shimmer. And yet, we still don’t know what happens to that soul after it leaves. So it’s [INAUDIBLE] and to have a soul you can see and still deal with that kind of unresolved tension of what happens to it in the future.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, I really loved, too, that it’s a story, too, that’s about Kelsey’s emotional history at the end of the day. The real burden, it’s that Kelsey can’t let go of the loss of her parents. And so she’s been living in their house since they died. It’s really interesting to just see this metaphor of burden being played out in that way.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Absolutely, and to some extent– and I’d love to get Darcie’s opinion on this– it felt like haunting kind of worked as an allegory for a lot of post-colonial trauma, kind of this idea that Kelsey, in the end, didn’t realize her complicity in holding on to that spirit, even though it is her job to literally look for and send the spirits on, knowing that it’s not good for them to stay. But she doesn’t necessarily see how she’s still perpetuating that.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So Aisha, this seems like the perfect time to bring in Darcie Little Badger herself to answer that question. Darcie is a storyteller, author of “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath.” She’s also a doctor of oceanography. Welcome, Darcie.
DARCIE LITTLE BADGER: Hello, thanks for having me. I’m so happy to be here.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, it’s so great to have you. I think Aisha just posed the perfect first question for you, which is, what is Kelsey’s sort of emotional burden saying about her relationship to colonization and the perpetuation of that damage?
DARCIE LITTLE BADGER: So I was thinking about a lot when I wrote this story. Like, on one level, I just really wanted to write this weird horror. And it’s kind of me exploring this belief that life initiates when this one enters through your first breath. And then it is extinguished when that last breath that you carry with you is breathed out.
These burdened breaths, they are not ghosts necessarily, but they’re ghost like in that they do kind of represent the person that they’d been carried around in. A lot of the things, though, like the ability for them to become heavy if they cannibalize other shimmers– that’s my fancy invention– is me being a fantasy writer and thinking, what if this happened?
At its core, this story is about how Kelsey, growing up, she was taught you need to let go. You cannot hold on to these shimmers. They have a journey to make. And yet, she’s holding on to the shimmer of her dog, for one, and also regretting that she couldn’t have her parents’ shimmers with her.
Through the process of this investigation with this burdened breath, she does kind of have to face our own complicity in perhaps holding a shimmer hostage for her selfish reasons. And the Lipan, before colonization, death was something that we tried not to talk about. We wouldn’t say the names of people who died, especially if they died young or violently.
They would be buried in a sacred location, but not one that can be returned to. So that’s very different from having graveyards with these tombstones. And yet, I do understand that desire to be with the people that you lost. So it is kind of these two conflicting ways of managing the process of losing somebody you love.
I’m glad that that came through a little bit in this very short story. ‘Cause at first, I was just like, I’m just going to write a cool ghost story with an investigation. And there’s going to be murder. And it’s going to be kind of like found footage almost with recordings. And anyway, it turned out to be a little bit deeper than that, without even knowing it.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Darcie, we asked our online reader community and Mighty Networks what they would want to do in Kelsey’s world. Like, would they want the option to carry six dead family members in a balloon tied to their body? It was kind of a mixed bag. Most people decided it wasn’t that ethical, but as you mentioned, some of them also expressed the desire to be able to hold on until they were ready to let go.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Yeah, and one thing it actually made me think about was one of the most kind of poignant parts for me was when she went into the museum, and she’s looking at the wreck of the Saint Mary. And it was particularly the shattered glass, 1,000 pieces from the 600 last breaths that died.
And it kind of reminded me of the way that a lot of indigenous people in particular have had their artifacts taken after colonialism and then displayed elsewhere. So I thought it was interesting to kind of meld the idea of holding a soul captive while, at the same time, questioning, is the soul actually still in these items that we display? And kind of, I wonder how the indigenous cultures kind of see that.
DARCIE LITTLE BADGER: For the Lipan people, we have had Nameless Young Warrior– that’s the way it was depicted– being displayed in Europe. But that is personally painful because this was a young man who was killed far too early through violence. And to then have him display just for this public consumption is a little bit– it’s hurtful.
I did kind of think in this museum, these are artifacts from bottom of the ocean. But they reflect a great deal of horrific misery and pain and just human loss. And to be displayed in this little museum without necessarily maybe the consent of the people those artifacts belong to is a little bit of a gray area there.
Obviously, that completely changes if there is a soul trapped within an artifact because that’s like a whole other– you’re keeping it there. But even just these shards of glass that were just torn apart by people escaping after their death, that’s something to think about.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Is this story an example of indigenous futurism, Darcie?
DARCIE LITTLE BADGER: One thing that’s important about indigenous futurism– and it’s often almost used interchangeably with sci-fi, but it is its own thing.
And one especially important thing about indigenous futurism is not just recognizing the future of our peoples, but also how the present day and our past are influencing the future and how they all influence each other. So in some of my works, I do delve into that. This one not so much. But it’s still fun to write.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I mentioned you’re a scientist, Darcie, specifically an oceanographer. And this story really does have science in it. You mentioned lab studies of mice to investigate whether last breaths can be burdened or not. It feels like a really intentional choice to be giving these souls a Western scientific treatment. Was that a choice that you were making on purpose?
DARCIE LITTLE BADGER: Yeah, I could go on a lot longer than this about my experiences trying to be an indigenous person in the Western scientific structure. I assembled transcriptomes. Before that, I studied ocean acidification. I still love knowing about the world and the things that I have learned. I won’t get too into it.
It is sometimes difficult because a lot of times, you’ll see a paper come out that says, oh, we have this great discovery. And then you realize, wait, Lipan people knew that hundreds of years ago, so there was almost this conflict between what I’ll call indigenous knowledge in science versus this more Western science. I don’t get too into that in this story.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Well, one other kind of– I think there was a lot of both subtle and overt discussion of the difference between animal and human souls. And so I kind of wondered, both how in the book and how in an indigenous community like yours, people kind of treat that. Because I know a lot of people have very different ideas about animals, ownership, rights to ownership of the land than the Western canon often allows.
DARCIE LITTLE BADGER: Yeah, and I have to say, Lipan people are unusual, even for other Apache groups in our concepts of the underworld and death and things like that.
But one thing that I explore a lot in my work– I even explore this in my book to a greater extent– is, human ghosts, at least in our stories, in our traditions, are these terrible things, even though animals also have this ability to have, I guess, what you would call souls. But it’s just the humans that are dangerous when they come back.
In my stories, I do think of different ways why this might be the case, especially in my book. But that is pretty cool that you picked that up. Because it’s something like when I’m a kid and I’m learning these things, I’m like, but why?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a reminder that I’m Christie Taylor, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. So I have just one more question, I think, for both of you. And it’s actually about the foreword to the book by the great LeVar Burton.
One of the things he says is that our exploration into the unknown should cause us to examine who we are as sentient beings. And science fiction as a tool for social change makes for a most welcome companion on our journey.
I’d love to know how both of you feel about the meaning both of science fiction in the world we exist in now, its value for social change, and especially also, Darcie, the meaning of writing science fiction, as someone who is indigenous in a time like now.
DARCIE LITTLE BADGER: Writing stories where there are not just indigenous people, but specifically, Lipan Apache people, my people in contemporary times and in the future, in the case of science fiction, is very important because in the mid to late 1800s, there was this big extermination campaign. And a lot of Lipan people went into hiding.
So a lot of our culture was hidden. And there were attempts to wipe us out. So it is important to me to show that no, we are still here, and we are thriving. And we will continue to thrive in the future. I’ve heard other native young readers who have conveyed how much this means to them. And to me, that’s the most wonderful thing.
But also, I do think that in general, that there is this interest in reading about people who aren’t necessarily like them. It builds empathy. And it also builds support because for the first time, non-Lipan people, they know who I am when I say I’m Lipan Apache. They don’t go, what? They go, oh, yeah. And that’s just great.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Absolutely. I think a lot of the things you said also apply to offer Afrofuturism. While with everything going on with Black Lives Matter at the moment, especially in America, there’s particular visibility on Black lives. But it’s oftentimes easy in those outdated history books to forget how much of the history was lost in that middle passage and the transition from Africa, putting people of all different tribes together and forcing them to learn English.
And there’s also a way in which Afrofuturism is really also trying to recover that history. I feel like realism was the literature of the 20th century. And for me, I think in the crazy world we live in now, science fiction is the literature of the 21st century, and that it is really one of the few mediums that is capable of helping us think through the problems that we are going to face in a kind of unprecedented way.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I love that. As someone who’s been reading science fiction since the late 20th century, I feel like everyone’s finally joining a party that I’ve been at for a year. We have run out of time. But thank you so much, both of you, for joining me today.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Thank you.
DARCIE LITTLE BADGER: Thank you.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Darcie Little Badger is an oceanographer and author of the short story, “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath.” Her debut novel Elatsoe is out now. And Aisha Mathews is the managing editor of The Journal of Science Fiction and director of literary programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity Conference.
One last thing, we are still reading New Suns for another month. Join us next week when we discuss the story “Dumb House” by Andrea Hairston. And for more information, a link to our online community, discussion questions, excerpts from New Suns, and our newsletter, check out our website, ScienceFriday.com/bookclub. For the Science Friday Book Club, I’m Christie Taylor.
IRA FLATOW: And like Christie says, check our website, ScienceFriday.com/bookclub. Plus, on the Science Friday VoxPop app, book club readers, what are you thinking about as you read through “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath” and other stories in New Suns? Do you have a favorite story yet? That’s on Science Friday VoxPop app wherever you get your apps.