Monday, July 2, 2018

Quick Sips - The Book Smugglers June 2018

June brings a new...novelette? novella? to The Book Smugglers, and people, you’re gonna wanna buckle up for this one. Combining aliens and friendship with trauma, horror, and compulsion, the piece took my expectations, froze them in nitroglycerin, and smashed them with a hammer. The piece does not pull its punches and while it centers a fourteen-year-old black girl, this isn’t what I would consider “for kids.” Instead it’s a brilliant and wrenching look at hope, abuse, and the way that toxic systems poison everything they touch. So yeah, to the review!

Art by Kristina Tsenova

“Nussia” by Michele Tracy Berger (18026 words)

No Spoilers: Nussia is an alien, a Fike, who has been chosen to be sent to Earth to live among humans. And Lindsay is the fourteen-year-old girl who has won the essay contest that means her family will be hosting. For Lindsay it is an opportunity to make a new friend, to prove that all aliens can be friends. From the start, though, things don’t go quite the way that anyone expects. Nussia doesn’t take much interest in Lindsay, preferring Lindsay’s older sister and father and displaying some heightened telepathic abilities that no one expected. The piece moves neatly, showing the splinters in the family, and in Lindsay, that most middle grade stories would seek to soothe and heal. Here, however, something much different happens. As much horror as science fiction, the piece gets into the ways that loss and expectations can make for a devastating combination, especially in young people. It’s an increasingly uncomfortable and terrifying look at a situation where only one person seems to really understand what’s going on, and she isn’t being listened to. And wow, yeah, it’s a devastating read.
Keywords: Aliens, Friendship, Family, Trauma, Jealousy, CW- Mutilation, CW- Hospitalization
Review: Okay, so this started out as a story about friendship and hope, with some interesting YA or even middle grade tones, that slipped farther and farther into horror and very adult themes that yeah, wow, fuck. And I love how the story goes about showing just how much Lindsay is willing to reach out in friendship to Nussia. It’s in some ways a selfish act, the desire to have a friend, and yet the way that Lindsay approaches it is respectful, wanting to help Nussia feel welcome and connected. She expects to find in this visitor a kindred spirit, one who wants to make friends. What she finds instead is someone who is hurting and who doesn’t want to be a part of this project. Who feels used and just wants to have some control again. Control that she can get because of her powers, which are more powerful on Earth.

The story does an excellent job with slowly raising the tension and the stakes. At first it seems like a lot of Nussia cruelty might be mistaken. That she might not mean to hurt Lindsay in the ways that she does. Except that everything seems just a bit too intentional, a bit too manipulative. Add in that Lindsay’s family feels judged not just as people but as representatives of all black people, and the personal and political situation is complex and intense. What the story teaches is that not all problems are as simple, and rarely then have simple solutions. While I as a reader was almost expecting to find the story about the transforming power of friendship, what I found instead was a story that looks at how much harm can be done when wanting friendship and connection cuases people to overlook abuses and injuries and harms done. Not all conflicts are superficial, or can be solved by something even so transforming as empathy, if that empathy does not come from both sides. For Lindsay, no amount of still wanting to be friends with Nussia changes the fact that Nussia has desires of her own, and they are violent and toxic. And because she lacks power, because she cannot even get those people who love her to believe her and stand up for her (against the tide of negative attention that her actions bring thanks to racism and misogyny), Lindsay finds that looking beyond humanity is not often a great answer to dealing with the pain caused by humanity, because what is alien is not necessarily better because it is alien.

And yeah, wow, I think I could go on about how well the story sets that all up, challenging the impulse in some ways of looking romantically at the stars as a way of ignoring the persistent and pervasive issues with humans. We want there to be some short cut, some way around, and yet without actually standing up for the ideals of consent, respect, and compassion, there can be no space utopia. At the same time, Lindsay is a child, full of the hope that things must be better elsewhere, still guilty of thinking of the Fike as more magic than person but only because she so desperately needs safety and community. She’s put in a truly impossible situation, because everyone around her (aside from her grandmother, but that’s it’s own tragedy) fails her. Just as everyone fails Nussia. Because both peoples haven’t really put their own houses in order, and are using these girls for their own purposes rather than really trying to connect. It’s a PR stunt, because otherwise it wouldn’t be children. It would be people who could fully understand and consent to what it all means. And of course it all goes wrong, because it’s built on coercion and lies, trying to treat it like neither humans nor Fike are as flawed as they are. And okay, really just go read the story. It’s a master class in leaving me gutted and emotionally wrecked but it’s so good!


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