Guest Contributor Victoria Elisabeth Garcia
Ancient, Ancient is a fierce, challenging, and occasionally perplexing swirl of a book by emerging speculative fiction author Kiini Ibura Salaam. The winner of the 2013 James Tiptree, Jr. Award for science fiction and fantasy that expands understanding of gender, Ancient, Ancient is a collection of thirteen stories, three of which are original. Though her short fiction has previously been published in Sheree R. Thomas’s groundbreaking Dark Matter anthology series and elsewhere, Ancient, Ancient is Salaam’s first book-length publication.
Salaam’s stories employ magic and time travel, spacecraft and prophecy to explore deeply human questions about motherhood, sex, identity, and inequality. Written in lush, precise prose and deeply rooted in feminine experience, they evoke feelings both hauntingly familiar and disorientingly alien. Though readers who are not frequent consumers of science fiction may find a few of the stories rather opaque, the book as a whole is a joy and a revelation. Adventurous souls willing to journey beyond their comfort zones will be well-rewarded.
The collection begins with “Desire,” a commanding and deeply physical piece about Sené, a hunter-gatherer woman worn out by hard work and childbirth, who learns to reclaim the erotic power of her body. Full of crocodiles, longing, and animal-bodied gods, the story hums with passion and poetic intensity. Its sonorous, folkloric tone is makes for a compelling and satisfying read.
“Desire,” is followed by a smart and graceful trio of linked science fiction stories. In these, we meet WaLiLa and MalKai, a pair of mothlike beings who travel, incognito, among everyday human beings in order to collect a vital human essence that their elders need for survival. The first of the three stories, “Of Wings, Nectar, & Ancestors,” is a broad and ambitious piece. Blending club music and glow sticks with nonhuman thoughts and prayers, the story gives the reader a convincingly alien perspective on the limits of spoken language, the power of sex, and the cycle of life. In contrast, “MalKai’s Last Seduction,” the second story, is an intimate tale that focuses tightly on male-bodied MalKai’s erotic connection with Cori, a deeply closeted gay man. Earthy, sensual, and emotionally rich, it is a gorgeously rendered character study that just happens to include an alien. In the third story, “At Life’s Limits,” Salaam uses WaLiLa’s striking and unearthly voice to describe Lukumi religious practice, family conflict, and neighborhood life in Havana, Cuba. The result is an elegant and resonant tale about the hardening and softening of boundaries; between people, between nations, between human and nonhuman, between life and death.
Not all of Salaam’s work quite so fantastical. A few are more tightly grounded in the day-to-day. “Rosamojo” is a tale about a young girl whose decision to use conjure to defend herself against abuse turns her world upside-down. Though the magic is drawn with convincing sharpness, the non-supernatural parts of Rosa’s world (family betrayals, a funeral, kitchens, cranky siblings) are drawn with equal sharpness, and affect the reader with equal power. With a nicely understated adolescent voice and a satisfyingly snappy ending, the piece is one of the collection’s standouts. “Marie,” is another nearly-mainstream story. Full of funny, heartbreaking, and often uncomfortable detail about pregnancy, race, assimilation, and being a Southerner in New York City, the piece is one of the most accessible in the collection. Though it morphs, midway through, into a rather predictable deal-with-the-Devil story, its well-wrought characters and gorgeous flashes of sensory insight keep the reader engaged until the end.
Several of the stories, however, are almost impenetrably strange. “Ferret,” for instance, is a very short piece about a grandfather and granddaughter who have been lost for years in space. Control of their spacecraft involves freeing a sphere of flesh and viscera from their bodies and coaxing a special sort of creature to enter it. Courses are plotted through divination. The depiction of far-future travel in original and evocative, and Salaam’s play with notions of bodily integrity and body horror certainly has the power to fascinate. But that may not be enough for some readers; especially those who aren’t already science fiction fans. Though also fascinating, “K-USH: The Legend of the Last Wero,” is similarly problematic. It is a meaty story that explores themes of sacrifice, loyalty, mentorship, and natural disaster, and it is certainly well worth reading. But because it is packed with neologisms, and built almost entirely of imagined beliefs and social structures, its depth of strangeness may prove alienating to some readers.
Still, some of the book’s most bizarre pieces are also among the best. “Debris” is a surreal and eerie story about a family of skeletal beings who visit the earth on the Day of the Dead. In this piece, a grandmother goes insane after inhaling dust, and starts giving away her bones; the souls of living people can be pulled from the body and juggled; and human emotions act as a drug on the skeleton-beings, producing trembling and exaltation. The story is disconcerting, but beautifully so, and its devastating final note hints at a kind of uncanny redemption.
The collection’s final piece, “Pod Rendezvous,” is likewise both rich and strange. Set in the far future, in this sprawling, carnivalesque coming-of-age story, marriage is for the moneyed, and motherhood is done by dedicated collectives who live bound together in communal veils. Here, Salaam’s ability to see the emotional dimensions of social and technological structures is gorgeously displayed. When a room is no longer needed, its walls disassemble themselves and coalesce elsewhere; a nostalgic character runs her hands along these new partitions, hunting for traces of her past. The twisting, smart-fabric veil of a mother-group produces claustrophobia and anxiety in a woman first learning to use it, but later, it brings clarity of vision, and even comfort. One mothering collective redefines its mission, and its members decide to forgo children, and to nurture themselves, each other, and the world around them. The longest piece in the book, “Pod Rendezvous” is also perhaps the best.
Salaam, in sum, is a powerfully talented new writer. Catch her on her way up.