Susie Munro Reviews How to Live on Other Planets: a handbook for aspiring aliens


How to Live on Other Planets: a handbook for aspiring aliens
Edited by Joanne Merriam

Review by Susie Munro

Published in March 2015, How to Live on Other Planets is the first speculative fiction anthology to focus purely on immigrant experiences. It collects 24 stories and 15 poems from 36 authors, ranging from relatively high profile – Ken Liu, Daniel José Older and Zen Cho – through those I’d not encountered before. All the works have been previously published in the first fourteen years of this century, and the collection has been for the most part well received. It is diverse in many senses of the word – the authors hail from 12 different countries and speak from a range of cultures, sexualities, genders and ages, a diversity which is reflected in their protagonists, the world’s they’ve built, and the stories they’ve chosen to tell.

In her foreword, Editor Julie Merriam writes that How to live on Other Planets turns on the question, “Who do we become when we live with the unfamiliar?” This is a collection concerned first and foremost with exploration of personal, individualised experiences of immigration, crossing and recrossing boundaries, displacement, and alienation. The approach adopted is one that which foregrounds and explicitly values the human aspect of marginalised experiences. It is not, we’re warned a polemic on colonialism or immigration policy and to my mind that lack of a unifying project separates it from other recent themed anthologies Long Hidden or We See a Different Frontier, to which it has been compared. This broad framing of the immigration theme struck me as a very safe construction of an inherently complex, contested and political question; it allows the dominant norms to remain undefined, if not unchallenged.

The structure is fairly idiosyncratic, but consistent across the collection – two to three stories followed by a poem or two. The pieces are not noticeably grouped by genre, or theme, or a common element to the stories and vary dramatically in length. This strategy functions well to emphasise the difference of the pieces from each other – perhaps we might read in to this a deliberate underlining of heterogeneity of lived experiences of migration and estrangement. They deal with change and alienation, love and grief, the families and communities we’re born into, estranged from, and the ones build along the way. The anthology certainly rewarded the way that I read it, a piece or two at a time on trams, in queues, or waiting for the next act to come on, over a period of months. The boundaries crossed are between worlds, alternate universes, dimensions, planes of reality, life and death, generations, class and species. The treatment of alienation is similarly wide ranging – from self, family, home, tradition, culture, species (again.) The texts span far futures, the present day and the colonial past, and are set in contemporary alternate New York, on parallel Earth and distant planets, explored in genres ranging from historical fantasy, magical realism, the new weird and more traditional science fiction. There is no unifying tone, although broadly speaking the stories are brighter and more optimistic than the poetry, some of which I found rather dark and dramatic, and not always in a good way. The standout poems were Bogi Takács playful The Tiny English-Hungarian Phrasebook for Visiting Extraterrestrials and Rose Lemberg’s powerful Three Immigrations.

Some of the strongest pieces in the collection are engaging not only because of the story they tell but from their consciousness of and relationship with context. Ken Liu’s reflection on the tension inherent to hybrid identities via the strained relationship between a genetically modified girl and her unmodified human teachers is an excellent example. Ghost Days is a sensitive, tightly written and cleverly structured story that examines alienation from history and culture and the myriad ways identity is strategically negotiated when confronted with difference –in British-ruled Hong Kong, 1980s Connecticut and an inhospitable planet in the far future. It also plays with the way family artefacts are loaded with layered and not necessarily consistent meanings in a way that gently disrupts stereotypes about Chinese people, diaspora and culture. Another of my favourites of the collection is Mary-Anne Mohanraj’s Jump Space. While not quite as smart as the Liu piece, this is a story that hasn’t met a motif it doesn’t subvert – challenging everything from contemporary normative notions of family and romantic relationships, stereotypes about South Asian women’s sexuality and traditional exploration and academic research in space tropes. It’s a warm story about love, the work that goes into building strong and resilient relationships, the ethics of studying other cultures and what it means to choose to intervene. The mercurial Sarita is a wonderfully realised character for such a short piece of writing.

Older’s New York might be inhabited by ghosts but it hums with life – in the evocative Phantom Overload the pleasingly snarky protagonist must investigate an influx of ghosts, who have discovered in death how to emigrate from Latin America to join their loved ones. It’s simultaneously a fast paced urban fantasy story and a biting commentary on the cruelties of immigration policy and the treatment of poor migrant neighbourhoods by big city bureaucracies. Nisi Shawl takes the prison planet trope and re-imagines it in In Colors Everywhere. A woman-centred culture defends itself from an attempt by authorities to impregnate its members with the next generation of jailers, the text considers resistance, identity, development narratives, relationship to environments and what first contact built on incremental construction of shared understanding might look like. Zen Cho’s gorgeously written and beautifully observed The Four Generations of Change E examines intergenerational ripples of immigration and explores the dissonance between self-image and the perceptions of others. It’s an immensely smart look at fluidity, nuance and strategic choices in hybrid identities:

“…[P]ast a certain point you stop being able to go home. At this point, when you have got this far from where you are from the thread snaps. The narrative breaks, and you are forced pastless, motherless, selfless to invent yourself anew…”

The collection isn’t without its soft spots however. I bounced straight off Tom Ford’s story about a white manager’s fixation with his Japanese subordinate – subsequent entanglement with mythic figures aside. I also didn’t enjoy the heavy handed messaging about missionaries in faraway places and oddly graphic descriptions in Astruc’s Believers Guide to Azagarth. Similarly, Rosenbaum’s The Guy Who Worked for Money might have dealt with contemporary anxieties about what I think we’re calling shame culture in the context of social media – but struck me as an instinctive response to the issue rather a considered comment, and one very tenuously connected to the central theme. The lightness of tone in Benedict’s Zog-19 didn’t work for me in the context of a xenocide story while the treatment of women in Connolly’s Turning Apples left me cold. Otis’ paean to adolescent struggles with body and self felt underdone, ill-served by the contrast with other stories featuring young protagonists and was an odd choice to draw the anthology to its conclusion.

I struggled reflecting on this collection to articulate how I felt about it. For all its challenges it How to live on other planets doesn’t let the reader forget that there are a multiplicity of answers to its central question. That being said, there’s something just out of focus about the anthology as a whole – its length, the jumble of themes, genres and settings, and the loose connection of some pieces to the central question all contribute to a sense of blurred edges. The open, carefully uncontroversial framing which underpins the anthology weakens it, the great breadth of content meant that for me, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of the parts. The joy of a well framed and focussed collection is dialogue between the texts and what one adds to the reader’s appreciation of its companions. Perhaps it’s a deliberate attempt in structure to avoid easy answers or essentialising a particular type or group of experiences? But if the casual reader is the target audience (as nominated by the preface), that’s not an easy choice to understand. There is a great deal of labour involved here in discerning if and how the collected stories and poems relate to each other. I hope very much that Western Anglophone genre readers who are likely to pick up such a collection could handle a sharper focus, one that names the hegemonic power of whiteness and western (neo)colonialism.

I’d have been less critical I think if the publisher (in this case also the editor) hadn’t positioned How to live on other planets as part of the push for diversity in Western, English language genre publishing. That movement for me is about making a deliberate push to tell other stories – stories which have traditionally been erased, co-opted, stripped of nuance and disruptive potential for easy consumption; or straight up rejected. As a collection about what the individual experience of alienation feels like – which is the most coherent summation I could come up with – How to Live on Other Planets avoids any explicit engagement with questions of structural power, erasure, colonialism and fear of the Other in dominant Western cultures all of which shape so many immigrant experiences. Ultimately if the linkages aren’t built between specific experiences of oppression and there’s no need to name the power that generates and sustains that marginalisation; you risk reinforcing the very dominant paradigms that are opened up for contestation. Many of the collected works explicitly or subtly grapple with these issues, but their impact is diluted by the inclusion of other stories – both those that don’t demonstrate that depth of insight, and those which are good and enjoyable but very distantly connected the central theme.

Neither reader nor text can divorce themselves from global or local political contexts, and the great strength of a Long Hidden or We See a Different Frontier is that they ask readers situated in a culturally dominant Anglophone West to listen and learn, to think again, and to re-examine their perspectives and the privilege these entail. In this context, in which white, wealthy European nations are actually building walls to keep refugees, who happen to be people of colour out of their territory; in which Australia’s national discourse about immigration groans under the weight of boats turned back and the slow unmaking of dehumanised refugees locked away in prison camps; in which our utter refusal as a nation to speak about whiteness, privilege and power and the violence this has done and continues to do, to people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and Indigenous peoples? I can’t help but see a missed opportunity to deconstruct those narratives, to ask readers to consider how they, their community, their government, and their society treats people it identifies as aliens.

susie-munro400Susie is a life long Melbournian who holds degrees in Media & Communications and Law from the University of Melbourne. She works in a support role for an NGO and when not at work can be found reading, contemplating her enormous to read list and ranting about social justice and intersectional feminism online. She is avid and passionate reader of speculative fiction and critical engagement only adds to her enjoyment. While she has probably spent far too much of the last thirty years wandering about in other people’s imaginations, she has no intention of stopping any time soon.

Susie’s twitter: @susiemunro


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