By Gary K. Wolfe
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 Au- thors’’, 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 par- allels 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 reli- gion 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 ap- parently 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 im- plied 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 ap- parition 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.