One of the great attractions of traditionally escapist genre fiction is the scope of the story. These are stories about big movements of history: plots to overthrow kings, bring down gods, reign in forces of nature or supplant the basic elements of the universe. They are stories of consequence – they are stories about power.
These are also stories about destiny, because all too often, the hero finds themselves coming into power because they were chosen by fate to do so. This makes sense in the context of a literary tradition that comes from the same culture that brought us Manifest Destiny – the idea that American settlers were destined to control North America. Western society still carries deep within it the notion that power collects where it is most deserved, because of the special or inherent virtues of those in power. The Chosen One gets to be King because he was meant to be King. Because he was always the King, and will always be the King.
For those who have never felt the presence of this kind of fate, personally or culturally, power is a very different beast altogether. Power is what other people have, and it’s what they use to control you. Heroism from below is not about rising to take the reigns of hegemonic power, but finding the cracks in the whole oppressive edifice, and fighting to blow open a hole big enough to survive in.
Traction, the protagonist of Eugie Foster’s “Tried as an Adult” (Strange Bedfellows ed. Hayden Trenholm) is a 13-year-old runner – an errand-boy employed by Honcho, a gang leader who leaves much of his day-to-day operations to minors because they are protected from a horrifying, dystopian justice system until they reach the age of 18. Poor, orphaned and, now, arrested, Traction is in no position to seize the reigns of power, but he finds a way to be a hero nonetheless.
Foster’s story is not about evading the law, but what you do when you’re in the clutches of an abjectly abusive system.
A new law lowering the age of competence has just been tabled, and Traction will be tried as an adult if they catch him again. Which they do, of course. Foster’s story is not about evading the law, but what you do when you’re in the clutches of an abjectly abusive system. Traction is alone at 13, left effectively orphaned by a justice system which not only incarcerates, but operates on and disables convicted felons. “Getting out” of a life of crime isn’t an option, and Foster amply demonstrates that Traction is better taken care of by the gang than he would be by the state.
When Traction is thrust into the maw of the justice machine, all he has left to him is a chance to stick it to his captors by recording his experiences with a neural implant and downloading them out of the prison via an uplink with a young runner he has been training. Their objective is a grassroots push back. Though Traction is ultimately abandoned to his fate by the adults in his life, he wants badly to stick with this plan right up to the bitter end, as does his six-year-old sidekick, who defies his boss in order to continue helping Traction because it’s the right thing to do.
The use of children as agents of change problematizes the story to an extent. Traction needs to be savvy enough to feel responsible for overturning an unjust authority, and yet the morality of the story hinges on the understanding that minors deserve draconian punishment even less than adults do because they cannot be held accountable for their actions. Both Traction and his trainee clearly understand what they are doing, undermining the argument that they are not responsible for their actions. It is this responsibility which makes them heroes. Why, then, must they be children? Most likely to play on the emotions of the civilians who will be shown the feed of Traction’s torture – and yet their self-awareness of this manipulation detracts from its power. These are not innocents.
By the end of the story, it is easy to forget that Traction is a child at all. His life is over. The only power he has, and has ever had, is in this recording he has made. This is not the kind of power that comes with authority, but the kind an angry people discover they’ve always had to reject the authority of others. Traction has become a symbol of resistance, and a reminder that it only takes a crack to break the dam.
“The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer (Long Hidden ed. Daniel José Older & Rose Fox) is a standout story in a collection built around the idea that great power exists even in the least-recorded corners of history. The power of the titular oud (a stringed instrument with roots in Near and Middle Eastern cultures) is an understated, secret magic passed to protagonist Zahara from her mother, but ultimately used to catastrophic effect when Zahara is pushed too far by the ruling powers.
Zahara is an outsider among outsiders: a member of the minority Muwahhidum (or Druze) community in a 17th century Ottoman Empire who has converted to Maronite Christianity for her now-dead husband. When her daughter is threatened with possession by the same stone demons who killed her husband, Zahara chooses to help the renegade Druze Prince Fakr-ad-Din in order to harvest the man’s grief to power the spell that will keep the demons away from her daughter.
The circumstances of Zahara’s crisis are convoluted, but once the players and their interests have been introduced, her trap is painfully clear. Helping Fakr-ad-Din makes her a traitor in the eyes of the Ottomans, but the solutions her Maronite neighbours provided for her husband’s demons proved useless. With her Maronite in-laws disapproving, her magic dependent on outlaws and her daughter endangered, she is given precious little margin for error in her actions. Zahara isn’t interested in revolutions, but living simply is not something she will be allowed as a minority among minorities in the midst of a civil war.
Zahara isn’t interested in revolutions, but living simply is not something she will be allowed as a minority among minorities in the midst of a civil war.
The power of the oud’s song is explicitly intended only to trap demons, but it is capable of much more. Like the Golem, the oud’s greater magic is both a protector of the Druze and a dangerous, uncontrollable force which is as likely to turn against she who sings it. Zahara doesn’t invoke it to help the Prince or to fight the Janissaries. This isn’t the magic you use to conquer empires or colonize lands. Fed by her grief, the fire will “cover everything that falls into their line of vision.” The Ottomans will suffer for having pressed Zahara, but so will everyone else in the spell’s path. This is not power as a reward, but as punishment.
Ruthanna Emrys’s incredible “The Litany of Earth” (Tor.com) also differentiates between the kind of power an individual might wield with magic, and the “real” power of institutions and authorities. Her story is a wholly subverted Lovecraftian tale that recasts the descendents of the Deep Ones, worshippers of Cthulhu initially presented in Lovecraft’s novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” as a persecuted religious minority.
Though Aphra Marsh, the protagonist, has knowledge and magic that the rich and powerful of the world lust after; for her, the rites of the Yith are just a way of knowing. “What magic is for is understanding,” she tells us. “Knowledge. And it won’t work until you know how little that gets you.” Real power is what “you get from a gun, or a badge, or a bomb.” This she knows all to well because she has just been released from the concentration camp where her people were imprisoned after the Feds raided Innsmouth. The magic her people practice and the power their Deep Ones blood grants them was not enough to prevent her mother – and other members of her community – from being taken to a government facility in the desert where they were tortured, experimented upon, and ultimately killed.
As Aphra learns to integrate into her new home boarding with a Japanese-American family post-World War II, she struggles to regain something of the family and culture she lost when her people were imprisoned by their government. She teaches her well-intentioned boss the basics of Aeonism, seeks out a community of New Aeonists, and fights off the FBI’s clumsy attempts to recruit her to help “separate out the bad guys” – those Aeonists who might actually be hurting people.
Though she refuses the FBI’s offers, she discovers among the New Aeonist communities just enough power to be dangerous, but the without the cultural knowledge which might have tempered misuse of this power. This is not a failing of the Aeonists, but the government, who created this knowledge gap when they systematically dismantled Aeonists communities not just in Innsmouth, but all over America. Though Aphra tries to head off the dangers that misunderstanding her culture could lead to, even the New Aeonists mistrust her too much to listen. Though she demonstrates her magic and displays the truth of her blood heritage – all the power she wields – ultimately, it is to the FBI she must turn if she wants to save the New Aeonist community from tragedy. “Real” power, just as Aphra foretold, isn’t in magic. It’s in the gun, the boot, and authority. Aphra’s power, in the end, lies in teaching and understanding.
“Real” power, just as Aphra foretold, isn’t in magic. It’s in the gun, the boot, and authority. Aphra’s power, in the end, lies in teaching and understanding.
Emrys’ telling is so complete and so convincing, it’s easy to get worked up about the plight of the Aeonists and to forget that they aren’t actually real. Characters make comparisons between the Aeonists and the parallel real oppression of Jews in Europe and Japanese-Americans on the west coast of America, but the Aeonist oppression manages to feel uniquely fresh. Anybody who has ever read Lovecraft, played Arkham Horror or even joked about Cthulhu feels that they have participated in the misrepresentation of a misunderstood ethnic group. Of course, the Aeonists are fictional and are whatever their writers want them to be – but Emrys has so successfully undermined Lovecraft’s otherwise racist tale of impure blood and outsider religions that her version feels more real, more right. It’s an effective reminder that the power lies with the people who get to tell the story, too.