Grief in Utopia: The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

This review contains spoilers.

The Seep might be one of the most refreshing takes on alien invasion I’ve ever read. This novel follows Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, as she and her wife Deeba, along with almost everyone else in the world, are forced to live with something called the Seep. The Seep is an alien unattached to concepts like linear time and physicality that invades humanity and simply… makes life perfect. People can alter their appearances at will, ingesting the Seep feels like getting high, and there are restaurants that only give you good-tasting food that will help your body out, along with a bunch of other seemingly-awesome changes. After a few years of living under its power, Trina doesn’t love the Seep as much as her friends do anymore—and then her wife Deeba decides she wants to be turned back into a baby and give up the life they’ve built together.

Trina does what I think any of us would be tempted to do in that situation: she drinks herself half to death. Living under the Seep, though, means that her actions don’t go unnoticed, and what really kicks the story off is someone coming to Trina’s place and telling her that she’s hurting the entire community by not taking care of herself or her house. This sends her on a mission to hunt down an old friend of hers and to save a boy she meets along the way who comes from the Compound, one of the only places untouched by the Seep.

What I really liked about this story is how deep Trina is in her grief. It’s been about five years since Deeba left, but the way Porter writes Trina is like it happened yesterday. Deeba isn’t dead, not really; she is a small child being raised by a lovely couple far away from Trina. However, to Trina, it’s like she is, and that comes through spectacularly through Porter’s writing. Trina hasn’t moved on at all in those years after Deeba’s departure. She could move on: she could let the Seep erase her memory of Deeba, or she could let it change her feelings into something more manageable. But Trina is all about the old days and the old ways. She misses what art was back when humans still routinely felt things like pain and sadness, and she doesn’t get the appeal of having an all-knowing alien rooting around in her skull and changing her brain chemistry every second of every day of every week.

So when she meets this kid from the Compound who wants to know about the world outside and wants to join with the Seep, it’s like her brain finally has something to focus on that isn’t Deeba. It’s never really about the kid; in the end, Trina doesn’t really care about him, not like she tries to convince herself that she does. It’s a distraction from the pain she has carried with her since Deeba’s departure. All of it leads her to a friend (ex-friend) who goes around wearing his dead boyfriend’s face and pretending that he is a different race than he actually is. It takes Trina finding him again and confronting him for any real change to happen within her, and Porter goes exactly where you want her to go when Trina is shoved back into the past for a little while. She watches her wife from the same place she watches her in a scene from the beginning, caught in a memory, and the pain of losing that part of her wife hits Trina all over again. She’s been lost in her grief, and she has been for a while now. This is simply when she finally realizes it.

Trina’s conversations with the Seep are also a high point of the book. The Seep talks to Trina by changing the writing on a pamphlet she is given, then by changing the writing on a pamphlet that the boy drops, and then it actually speaks to her from the pamphlet cover and heats up in her hands when it wants to tell her something. Trina tries to get the Seep to understand that sometimes humans need to be able to choose bad things or things that hurt, but it takes the Seep a long time to grasp that point. If the Seep isn’t there to make life perfect and wonderful, then what is it for? The relationship between Trina and the entity known as the Seep is the thing that drives the story onward when Trina’s previous excuses and distractions run a little thin. In one of the most moving scenes of the book, Trina and the Seep talk to each other in a sort of talk show style set-up where every person in the audience is a different iteration of Deeba. Deeba left her because of the Seep; we know that, the story literally begins with that. Seeing it laid out so viscerally, though, with the Seep wearing somebody’s face and talking to Trina while every version of Deeba she ever knew laughs out at her from the background really made it hit home. That’s what this sort of grief is like, and Porter captures it so perfectly. I’ve been thinking about that scene for days since I put the book down. It takes having this conversation with the Seep for Trina to decide to try to move past everything with Deeba, and the story ends optimistically with Trina beginning to take care of herself and the house she used to share.

I know I’m a little late at finding this story (it was published in 2020), but I’m just glad I found it when I did. It’s moving, thought-provoking, and exactly the sort of thing I’m into. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is because there are a couple plot issues it took me a minute to get past (she’s on a Do Not Admit list to her ex-friend’s shows, but she’s able to go in anyway?), but other than that, I really liked it. The way that the novel is bookended by “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World” is really cool too and ties the story together. I would absolutely recommend this.

Triggers warnings for: death, slight suicidal ideation, loss of bodily autonomy, and drug use (kind of).

Danika reviews Love after the End edited by Joshua Whitehead

Love After the End edited by Joshua WhiteheadLove after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction edited by Joshua Whitehead is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories by Indigenous authors. It’s edited and introduced by Joshua Whitehead, the author of Jonny Appleseed and full-metal indigiqueer. In that introduction, Whitehead reflects on the intersection between Indigeneity and queerness: “How does queer Indigeneity upset or upend queerness? Are we queerer than queer?” He goes on to explain that originally, Love after the End was going to be a collection of dystopic stories, but they pivoted towards utopias: “For, as we know  we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present.”

The introduction alone is thought-provoking and sometimes intimidating. Whitehead brings his study of theory to this work, and some of the ideas went over my head. I appreciated being introduced to these ideas, though, and it definitely left me thinking, including his mention of “contemporary erasures and appropriations of the term Two-Spirit by settler queer cultures who idealize, mysticize, and romanticize our hi/stories in order to generate a queer genealogy for settler sexualities.” Besides, this is an anthology by and for Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people; as a white settler reader, I know I’m not going to understand every reference. The authors are from many nations across North America, and many stories include untranslated words from different Indigenous languages.

Although the introduction is academic, the stories themselves are written accessibly. They cover a lot of different topics, but many come back to the idea of space travel, and especially of evacuating a dying Earth. In one story, a portal is made that allows travel to an almost identical, uninhabited planet. The main character has a white partner who doesn’t understand the main character’s reluctance to leave, or her distrust of the supposedly peaceful government’s settlement of a “new world.” The Earth is ravaged, and left for dead by most–Indigenous communities are some of the few people who are willing to stay. Another story has the characters’ escape hinge on space travel that will use the Earth’s kinetic core energy to fuel it, leaving the planet destroyed. Each character has to decide whether they will stay or go, and what that means for their identity and relationship with place.

As I was reading Love after the End, I was reminded just how colonialist SFF often is as a genre, whether it’s about “conquering new worlds” and literally establishing colonies, or centring Medieval England in fantasy stories, or just holding up white, straight, cis, male protagonists as the heroes. This collection is such a refreshing change of perspective. These stories include a relationship with the land that isn’t common in science fiction stories. They assume a greater responsibility for protecting the Earth than I’m used to from a dystopia. The question of whether to stay on a planet that’s been destroyed by (white, wealthy) human activity is very different here than in a typical white space travel story.

“How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls” is about a “Native girl who loves other girls” writing a manual on how to survive in this post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s also an exploration of what systems would replace the white colonial system once it collapsed. She explains, “See, when the borders broke, people decided that Kinship should be our main law instead. Except the problem was that Kinship means different things to different people. And sometimes people who should see each other as kin, inawemaagan, reject each other.” She loves and respects her culture, but is also critiquing this new system of power: who is left out? She find that Two-Spirit people, including her friends, are not always respected the way they should be. She grapples with the idea of what it means to be kin, and who decides.

Many of these stories use Nation-specific language for identity, which doesn’t neatly map onto white, European categories:

“The boys made fun of Kokomis ’ shirt. They said I’m a girl and girls shouldn’t wear men’s clothes. They said I’m wrong.” Her mother crooned. She gently grasped her face. “When you were born, your Kokomis held you in his arms and he looked at me with tears running down his face because he had been waiting his whole life for another îhkwewak like him, and there you were, I gave birth to you, and I was never more grateful for anything else in my life. You are a gift, Winu. And people are often jealous of gifts that are not for them.”

Reading this collection also reminded me of what I’ve read about Indigenous survivance. Gerald Vizenor, the Anishinaabe scholar who coined the term, says: “Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry.” I recommend reading more about it, including at survivance.org. The stories in Love after the End position Indigenous people in the future, instead of the past. They frame Indigenous nations as not only subsisting, but using traditional knowledge and culture as strengths in current and future societies.

… There’s also an m/m romance story between a teenage boy and an AI who is also a cyberengineered super-intelligent rat! (In this story, same-sex relationships are accepted, but human/AI romantic relationships were the “the sort of thing that was whispered about, something that lived in the shadows.”)

I really enjoyed this collection, both as an addition to queer lit and as a much-needed collection of SFF. This is a great way to be introduced to a lot of talented authors, some of whom also contributed to Love Beyond Body Space and Time and some who are new to this collection. Usually in an anthology, I concentrate on the sapphic stories, but because Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer identities don’t neatly fit into white western categories of sexuality, I’m not going to try to separate those out. I will say that I think this collection is definitely relevant to Lesbrary readers, and it left me hungry for more Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer SFF!

Danika reviews The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep by Chana PorterThe Seep is a weird fiction novella (200 pages) exploring a “soft” alien invasion utopia. It begins with a section titled “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World.” Earth is being invaded by a disembodied alien species–which turns out to be a good thing. The Seep forms a symbiotic relationship with humans. They get to experience linear time and human emotions, and in exchange, well, they solve basically every problem people have ever had. Illness, inequality, capitalism, pollution and climate change all disappear. People develop intense empathy for everyone and everything in the world. Everything and everyone is connected, anything imagined is possible, and everyone is immortal to boot.

A utopia may seem like a set up for a boring book: where’s the conflict? But although The Seep just wants everyone to be happy, it doesn’t understand human complexity and why we might like things that are bad for us. In fact, despite having every opportunity imaginable, Trina is miserable. She is grieving, and she’s tired of this new world: everyone is constantly emotionally processing and high on The Seep. She finds herself nostalgic for struggle and purpose. She’s trans, and after fighting for so long, she’s at home in her body and vaguely irritated at people who treat changing faces and growing wings as a whim.

Despite the big premise, the real story is about Trina’s journey through grief. Her relationship with her wife is over (I won’t spoil why), and no amount of The Seep wand-waving will fix it. This alien species of superior intellect, power, and empathy can’t grasp why she would choose to feel pain, to poison herself with alcohol, to neglect her home and relationships. This novella shows what being human really means, and how no world, no matter how idyllic, really can be without conflict–but that’s just part of the experience of being alive.

I loved how queer this is. From the beginning, Trina and Deeba are having a dinner party with two other queer couples. I liked the discussion of what race and gender and sex mean in a world where you can change your appearance effortlessly. Trina and Deeba are both racialized women. Trina is Jewish and indigenous, and other Jewish and racialized characters appear as side characters. I appreciated this focus, but I acknowledge that I am reading this from a white, non-Jewish, cis perspective, and although the author is bisexual, this is not as far as I know an own voices representation of any of the other marginalizations that Trina has. I would be interested to read reviews by trans, Jewish, and indigenous readers.

If you’re looking for a short, thoughtful, and weird read–definitely pick this up. I loved the writing and the characterizations (there are so few good bear characters in books, you know?), and I look forward to picking up anything this Chana Porter writes next!

Lauren reviews The Size of the World by Ivana Skye

the-size-of-the-world

In The Size of the World, Theia is intent on traveling across her world until she reaches the Darkness. She travels across many lands, lands where people welcome, help, and feed her without prompts; where people eat fallen stars; where walls are icy-hot and made of waterfalls; where goods and services can be paid for with words. Along the way, Theia meets Tellus, a woman with many names. Tellus transforms Theia’s journey into one of self-discovery.

This book has an appealing interior, which is matched by a lovely rhythm that amplifies the storytelling. I especially enjoyed the subtle interactions between Theia and Tellus, which are captured in lines like:

Inside my dreams, light is still scattering through the sky, and each pinprick is one of [Tellus’] names.

The Size of the World is a utopian fantasy novella. This fact, however, didn’t curb my desire for the thrills of an alternate universe. So, there were moments that I wanted Theia to run into trouble— especially after she crossed the Third Sea and reached the Fourth Tributary. I wanted the inhabitants of this land to introduce the setbacks I was waiting for, setbacks that would stall or change the course of Theia’s travels. I wanted the Fourth to take matters into their own hands in order to fulfill (their) prophecy.

My desire for threats was not simple, wishful thinking. It’s the result of a well-written and poetic story that drew me in, prompting me to imagine exchanges between Theia and the lands of people she would encounter as I flipped through the pages of her journey.

This is a story that allows readers to linger in words and colorful settings, and to apply meaning to various layers of symbolism. Take ivy for example. Tellus likens Theia to ivy. Ivy grows aggressively… it is persistent. Ivy can grow in all directions… it travels. It can cover any structure… it transforms. Ivy trails the pages of this story, a story that will stay with me (and hopefully you) for days to come.

Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, “The Dawn of Nia.” Outside of reading and writing, she volunteers as a child advocate and enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.