I’ve been looking forward to participating in the A More Diverse Universe project, and to using the opportunity to review two works by authors I’ve recently discovered who have greatly expanded my interest and appreciation of speculative fiction. In the past few months I’ve become a big fan of both Ted Chiang and Victor Lavalle, and if you haven’t read either, you should correct that oversight immediately.
Lucretia and the Kroons is a novella set in the same world as Lavalle’s recent novel The Devil in Silver, showing us how Loochie Gardner eventually came to see a greater darkness in the world. Loochie is a normal twelve year old, dealing with the reality of her best friend wasting away from cancer. This is hard for her, as it would be for any child, especially as she sees Sunny as her only friend, and when Sunny’s gone she feels very small and alone. When she fears Sunny has been taken into the apartment of the Kroon family, crackheads who live above them in their Queens apartment building, Loochie feels her only choice is to go up after her.
Lavalle’s book adopts the shape of a fairy tale, but one informed by his own childhood in Queens. Loochie’s fairy land is distinctly urban (the old World’s Fair Unisphere is a place of safety, rats with pigeon’s wings threaten her), but no different beneath that surface than Baum’s Oz. This land tests her, and forces her to accept realities she would rather ignore.
Where Victor Lavalle really impresses, though, is his voice as a writer. He writes in that narrow channel where the cadence of his writing feels like the rhythms of his own speech, and reading him feels like listening to him. It’s a rare talent, and draws you into the story much deeper than you expect.
Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a much different type of story, one set not in Chiang’s heritage as an Asian American, but instead in Iraq and Egypt hundreds of years ago. The story is four interlocked stories. The frame story is the titular merchant relating his experience of meeting an alchemist who has created a portal allowing a man to travel either backwards or forward in time. The Alchemist then tells of three people who used his gate to try and change their fortunes, with varied results. This inspires the merchant to use the gate himself. There isn’t much in the way of details I would want to give here, because the joy of this book is the surprising twists Chiang reveals throughout.
Ted Chiang is receiving a lot of attention over his imaginative Science Fiction, and all of it is deserved. He delves into brain bending concepts fearlessly, and brings heady philosophical concepts into his writing to boot. Where Victor Lavalle uses a warm, intimate writing style, Ted Chiang is more analytical. Even with that difference, both are powerful, moving storytellers, and strong representatives of the rich diversity available in the worlds of speculative fiction.