Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Talk Like a Man by Nisi Shawl
Talk Like a Man, Nisi Shawl (PM Press 978-1-62963-711-2, $14.00, 114pp, tp) November 2019.
It’s been more than a decade since Nisi Shawl’s only previous collection, Filter House, and since much of her short fiction has appeared in small-press publications that often have to be sought out, her new chapbook from PM Press provides an enticing glimpse into the fiction of an author most widely known for the Nebula Award-nominated Everfair. Talk Like a Man is the latest in PM’s series of appetizer-sized collections from “Outspoken Authors”, and it generally follows the series format, in this case four stories, an essay, and the usual quirky but insightful interview with series editor Terry Bisson. But anyone expecting more steampunk anticolonialist alternate history of the sort we saw in Everfair might be surprised at the eclectic, at times almost meditative stories, only one of which is any sort of traditional SF.
In her essay, drawn from a talk she gave at Duke in 2010, she argues that her own practice of the West African Ifa religion is entirely compatible with her career as a SF writer, editor, and teacher, even pointing out parallels between the roles of certain Ifa ancestors and deities and aspects of scientific speculation. Ogun, for example, is the patron of blacksmiths and by extension of technology, while Exu oversees communication; Shawl sees in both of them parallels with computer technology, web communication, and even the tricksterish aspects of quantum theory. It’s possible to strain such parallels to the point of pulling a muscle (remember those 1970s bestsellers by Gary Zukav and Fritjof Capra?), but Shawl isn’t arguing that science is religion in drag or vice versa; rather, she’s interested in what such dual perspectives might mean in terms of the writing, editing, and reading of SF and fantasy.
Not surprisingly, then, the four stories here tend to reflect multiple perspectives. “Walk Like a Man” is set in a virtual high school in which the narrator, having wormed her way into a mean-girls-style “girlpack,” finds herself falling in love with a new student, Sherry, who turns out to be an embodied AI. We also get glimpses from the viewpoint of the AI, whose fumbling language suggests an almost spiritual coming into a world in which a performer at a rock concert becomes nothing less than a god. The switch between the two voices, one enmeshed in futuristic girl-pack slang and the other barely grappling with the idea of consciousness, is a bit more disorienting than it needs to be. But the two longer stories are both more adventurous and more interesting. “Women of the Doll” begins as an apparently mundane tale of a woman shopping for a new house, but when she attracts the attention of a would-be seducer, it becomes apparent that what she’s up to is more complicated: she carries with her a doll, which, through a kind of wiccan ritual, comes alive with its own consciousness. It turns out that the real purpose of the house-hunting in in service to the more or less secret society of women in the story’s title, who sometimes manipulate men into donating their sperm for the society’s own implied purposes. The shortest tale, “An Awfully Big Adventure”, is mostly a meditation on disease and dying, told from the point of view of the youngest of three sisters.
The best story, though, is also the longest. “Something More” begins as a kind of ghost story, as the protagonist Allie, a nursing student turned rock musician, sees in her mother’s house the apparition of a woman, who later reappears in a dream warning her of a wizard who can “switch himself to a body in your time”, suggesting an element of time travel as well. Over the next several years of her growing musical career, Allie finds herself negotiating with both the woman and the wizard as she tries to figure out who they are and what they want of her. Characteristically, Shawl’s tale ends on a note of anticipation rather than dramatic resolution, but the drama of Allie’s emerging life choices is compelling on its own. Shawl’s tales seldom make use of conventional plots, focusing more on the aspirations and fears of her characters, but those characters can seem hauntingly real and surprisingly memorable.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.
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