Science fiction is nothing if not an enigmatic and eclectic genre. It’s a category of literature that would seem to take a number of subgenres—from imagined alternate histories, fantasy, magical realism, cyber punk, and everything in between—and deliver it as a multiplicity of reading experiences for its fans. As Ray Bradbury argued, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. . . . Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done.”
In Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, Editor Grace Dillon organizes the short stories and excerpts from novels around specifically enigmatic, and what she terms indigenous, themes—namely, the concept of native slipstream; contact; indigenous science and sustainability; native apocalypse; and biskaabiiyang (“returning to ourselves”). Each of these thematic categories has parallel motifs in more traditionally recognized science fiction (post-apocalyptic, dystopian societies, points of contact, etc.) but these short stories claim a unique narrative voice. “Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities,” as science fiction writer and author Miriam Allen de Ford noted. In this anthology of indigenous science fiction, the “improbable possibilities” and “plausible impossibilities” come from what Dillon highlights as equally valid ways to “renew, recover, and extend First Nations peoples’ voices and traditions.”
It’s hard to highlight certain stories from any collection, but two stand out in Walking the Clouds—the excerpt from Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson and “Distances” by Sherman Alexie. In Midnight Robber, the reader is introduced to an incredibly fluid narrative voice where the line between reality, fantasy, magic, and fiction is fantastically blurred and the characters’ experiences are complexly simple as seen through the eyes of the child Tan-Tan. The sing-song diction of the characters draws the reader into a post-apocalyptic world full of gentle harshness where the magical happenings show that nothing is ever what it seems.
“Distances” shows a post-industrial world (of “Us” and “Them,” a seemingly common theme within more traditional science fiction), but the use of technology as metaphor is particularly compelling. It would appear that Alexie is deconstructing a Western concept of time by showing all of the ways that technology fails at consistently measuring it:
At the Tribal Council meeting last night, Judas WildShoe gave a watch he found to the tribal chairman.
“A white man artifact, a sin,” the chairman said, put the watch in his pouch.
I remember watches. They measured time in seconds, minutes, hours. The measured time exactly, coldly. I measure time with my breath, the sound of my hands across my own skin.
Dillon’s careful categorization and overall organization of these themes are certainly useful tools for establishing a background and the working context for the contributed authors’ work. However, the rigidity of the anthology’s structure quickly feels as though the structure begins to undercut the literary work itself.
The introduction to the anthology reads as an odd means of negotiating space on a number of levels—rather than mediating ideas, it seems to be negotiating a justification of an intellectual space between an academic audience and popular, literary writing. Rather than celebrate the diversity of the overall genre of science fiction, the introduction reads as an almost bitter recrimination for the short-sightedness of the genre in not inherently including indigenous science fiction. The case for its legitimacy is pitched so hard and so repetitively (from the anthology’s introduction to the introduction of each short story or excerpt) that the editorializing begins to undermine the power of the literature itself. Science fiction is a broad, diverse, enigmatic category—indeed, the compiled literature more than speaks for itself, and speaks for itself well. Its legitimacy, or even its validity, within the genre seems to only come into question as the introduction insists that it has a place. For science fiction aficionados, enthusiasts of magical realism, and readers interested in the play of space and time in fiction, skip the introductions and to dive right into the works themselves—and enjoy the stories Walking the Clouds has to offer.
Overall, Walking the Clouds is a fantastically diverse collection of authors exploring ideas through characters, plots, and symbols in ways that challenge and enlighten the reader and remind us that the experience of science fiction is fluid and adaptable. Charles de Lint perhaps best summarized the anthology with: “Don’t read this because they’re stories by Native American writers. Read them because they’re damn good stories by damn good writers.”