Review – Roanhorse, “Black Sun”

Rebecca Roanhorse, “Black Sun” (2020) (read by several actors) – I didn’t especially like this novel, one of the most hyped and praised fantasy works of the last few years, but more than even most books, it’s impossible to separate my reaction to it from broader context. “Black Sun,” like many speculative fiction novels in the last five to ten years, is meant to be a great victory for inclusion and new perspectives in its genre. Set in a secondary world based on Mesoamerican and Southwestern Native American history and mythology and written by a black woman who claims membership in one of the Navajo nations (according to Wikipedia, said nation disputes this claim), it promises a new departure in fantasy. No more “white farm boys going on quests,” as Roanhorse put it in one interview, no more whiteness-as-default. This was going to be something new.

Well… it isn’t. It just isn’t. It’s the same old fantasy crap with vaguely Mesoamerican trappings, and really, not that much of that. Special child of destiny, blah blah, Han Solo-style outcast rogue, etc etc, the world is on the precipice of dangerous transformation, yadda yadda yadda. And you know… that’s fine, I guess. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it. I like to paraphrase Adam Clayton Powell’s reaction to the Mafia hijacking of the illegal lottery in his district: “I am against the numbers in any form, but until the numbers aren’t played in Harlem, I want the black man to have the same chance to profit from it as the Italian,” or words to that effect. As long as anodyne same-same bullshit is what we’re doing, women, people of color, queer people, marginalized people of all kinds, deserve the same chance to write banal fantasy novels as anyone else, and throw in the same bowdlerized versions of what they think of as their culture as any white guy doing his Wagneresque nonsense.

But like… what a wasted opportunity! A Mesoamerican-based fantasy novel that actually tried something ambitious could kick ass! Hell, there probably are some… they’re probably out of print and don’t have social-media-active authors and/or fans to do shitty publishers’ promo departments’ work for them… but I do think it’s worth thinking about, with this explosion of interest in diverse representation in media, and at least some understanding of the histories and patterns of thought of historical cultures, why we get stuff like “Black Sun” instead of the more interesting works we should be able to expect.

Let’s start with what is missing in “Black Sun.” The plot is hackneyed and poorly-paced, the language dull, and the imagery not especially creative, but those problems are surmountable (though in descending order). What’s really missing is any sense of difference in the world. The characters act, talk, and think like genre stereotypes, though admittedly genre stereotypes of our time rather than the ones from days of yore by which we’re supposedly inundated. There is no indication that this culture, based, supposedly, on entirely different roots than European culture, produces different thought, or social structure, or really anything, even aesthetics. Roanhorse depicts the characters as dressing a bit different than standard Renn Faire garb, but you’d figure the one thing the author of this sort of work would nail down would be that the world would —look— different, and she doesn’t manage that. I thought the whole basis of this stuff was a sort of bourgeois liberal variety of ethnic essentialism, a kind of Twitter-bound Herder’s sense that every group has a unique way of thinking and seeing the world based on culture, environment, heredity, etc., but you don’t see any of that here, and you don’t see it in works that play similar roles but with different ethnicities represented, either- in or out of genre fiction. It’s maddening!

Some of the problems are not unique to the failures of the liberal representationalist model in genre fiction, but are broader problems, especially in SFF. There’s a lot of worldbuilding and it’s not done especially gracefully, and again, Roanhorse has the opportunity to make a world that seems really different — that has a different lived-in experience than however many Middle Earths and Westeroses — and whiffs it. The world isn’t the most laboriously built-out one you see these days, to Roanhorse’s credit, but it possesses the schematism that characterizes a lot of contemporary SFF worldbuilding. What I mean by that is you wind up in a world that may have secrets, but is otherwise ordered in rather rigid categories, worlds that could very easily be summed up in charts. You have these nations (that should be a worldbuilding gimme- it should not be new news to people who went through liberal education recently that the nation state should not be taken for granted!), you have these factions, these gods, and this type of person is characterized by X, Y, and Z, while the other type of person from whatever faction can be characterized by A, B, and C, on and on.

Tolkien’s worlds weren’t like that- Gygax, Arneson, et al had to do a lot of work to rationalize his world (and Moorcock’s, and Vance’s, and who knows how many others) into playable schema. To say there’s been a dialectic between games and SFF writing might have been accurate in their day- at this point, the overlap is nearly comprehensive and defines SFF writing more than it does games. This isn’t a problem in and of itself- some good fiction has been inspired by games. But it can be a problem when the schematic categories of gaming come to define, in an insufficient critical way, worldbuilding, and in some cases character work and other aspects of writing. It doesn’t help matters that some of the most successful franchises of all time are heavily schematic: Harry Potter and it’s houses, Game of Thrones and it’s factions, on and on. It doesn’t help that such categorizations loan themselves readily to the kind of fandom identifications that help drive sales (you have to figure the recent craze for astrology plays into this dynamic too- “I’m a Taurus Ravenclaw etc etc!”), – and to the sorts of stories — star cross’d love across the ill-delineated faction lines being most prominent — that people want to read (over and over again). I don’t know if whole online communities are going to start delineating themselves by Roanhorse’s four castes of the academy of the holy city or whatever just yet. I can’t say whether Roanhorse wanted that to happen when she wrote the book, or that it matters- because that’s the thing with tropes and cliches, it’s not some conspiracy. It’s just the path of least resistance.

It seems that a community of fiesty critics and writers have arisen that share some of my issues with contemporary SFF, and they have recently taken to describing the dominant strain in it these days as “squeecore.” These critics name the following as the traits of squeecore: a shallow emotional range that mostly does either maudlin or glib; heroes who feel like adolescents even when they aren’t; genre send-ups that were stale twenty years ago; aversion to the dark or strange; influences from anime and video games; humor “stuck in the aughts”; superficial dedication to diversity and other liberal values, generally affirmed by the triumph of the hero. The original promulgators of this critique were maddeningly unspecific about who they had in mind, and mostly only named big figures well outside of striking range (like Joss Whedon).

I think the concept is a valuable contribution to the critical discourse, but could use some work. There’s a certain “opposite day” tendency in the criticism that sees qualities lacking in squeecore — mainly darkness and sexiness — as the sine qua non of quality genre fiction and as lacking in the unfortunate SFF of today. I don’t think that’s quite right. Maybe it’s not the quality of darkness and sexiness they want, but you can’t say that “Black Sun” doesn’t do dark, or sex. It’s just anodyne, predictable, and even if the situations — the inevitable world-doom/structural oppression combo the heroes will fix however many bloated books in because hashtag-love-wins; the sexual politics ported in straight from contemporary Twitter — weren’t so hackneyed, the writing is not up to the task. Dark and sex won’t fix the problem, and really I think few aesthetic fixes will. But maybe I think that because my aesthetic sense is limited. My solutions are pretty limited, as well- learn more, I guess? Challenge yourself? A ruthless criticism of everything existing? Maybe that would help me critique contemporary literature more effectively but something tells me it is, to borrow a phrase from one of my critical masters, shooting nerf darts at a T-Rex.

Because why should Rebecca Roanhorse or her many, many readers care? Why should they challenge themselves? Why should they be more critical? They’d clearly rather not. It won’t win you any popularity contests- you’ll still deal with the same chuds who hate anything thoughtful, even anodyne liberalism and boring writing, plus all the anodyne liberals and boring writers will hate you, too. And it’s not like Roanhorse wrote a bad book, just a mediocre one. And the world’s burning and emerging fascism etc etc. I get that. I will say that I think many of the same faculties that could maybe get us out of the whole “burning world” business with something like civilization intact are the same that maybe might get us a better literature, genre and otherwise. Similarly, I think that a lack of imagination, of criticality, and of ability to take on a range of difficult emotions and ideas, and the complacent belief that because you’re not awful then you must be good enough, really isn’t helping, anywhere. **’

Review – Roanhorse, “Black Sun”

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