Filter House by Nisi Shawl. ★★★★
Filter House is an excellent collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories. I’d previously read Nisi Shawl’s novel, Everfair, but had difficulty with the pacing and expansive time frame. Overall, I enjoyed this short story collection a lot more. And it turns out that it won the Tiptree Award, which is entirely fitting for such a brilliant collection.
Perhaps my favorite story was “The Pragmatical Princess,” which follows in the long tradition of twisting old fairy tale tropes to use in a feminist way. Yet, “The Pragmatical Princess” successfully distinguishes itself from its predecessors. The story opens with Princess Ousmani, daughter of Musa the Magnificent and a distant cousin of the Caliph, chained to some rocks as a sacrifice to a dragon. Naturally, she and the dragon strike up a conversation and come to an arrangement. It’s a coming story, and I always love intelligent and sensible female characters. Also, it has a dragon!
However, the most memorable story in the collection is “Shiomah’s Land,” where a young girl and her mother have fled to a city of gods. When her mother is run over by a goddess’s chariot, the protagonist is taken in and raised as a plaything of the goddess. While I’d initially pegged the story as fantasy, it soon takes a turn for science fiction, revealing a far future society where a handful of post-humans posses technology beyond imagine while the masses live in ignorance and suffering. It’s a dark story, but one that I’ll remember for a long time to come.
Two stories in the collection imagine a world where water is scarce. I don’t know if these stories are set in the same future, but they have very different tones. In “Momi Watu,” the narrator is a working, single mother who’s oh so tired. The story opens with her caring for her daughter’s hair, which is kept long in spite of the widespread fear of lice that carry deadly diseases. The story follows an ordinary day in the life of the mother and daughter, showing the disquiet of the mother and the simple, child-like joy of the daughter. The other story, “The Water Museum,” focuses on a woman who runs a water museum, using a fortune of scarce water to create an amusement park of water run devices and aquatic environments. Others want to posses the water, and the story deals with her dealing with an assassin. I enjoyed the narrator’s personality and her caviler attitude towards assassins.
Nisi Shawl has a true gift for writing from the perspective of children. She’s able to capture a tension between innocence and knowledge that leads to deeply intriguing stories. “Maggies” and “Wallamelon” are the best of these. “Maggies” is a science fiction tale, set in a future where the protagonist’s father is working on terraforming a water-filled planet. The actual, physical work is done by “maggies,” genetically engineered humans. The maggies situation brings up themes of racism, slavery, and power dynamics. The young girl who narrates the tale becomes fixated on one maggie who is a sort of caretaker/substitute mother for her. Is the relationship healthy or loving? Or is it a privileged child placing demands for emotional labor upon an oppressed woman? It’s a deeply uncomfortable story but also one of the best of the collection. By contrast, “Wallamelon” may have darkness to it, but it doesn’t have the same looming feeling of danger as “Maggies.” The protagonist is a young girl who hears stories of the Blue Lady, a goddess that protects children. Turns out, the Blue Lady is not just stories.
“The Raineses” is another with a child protagonist, but it’s not as striking as the other two. The protagonist is a girl visiting relatives who are the caretakers of a wealthy house, and she sees and interacts with the ghosts of its past residents. Like other stories in the collection, “The Raineses” touches on America’s history of racial violence and discrimination.
I’m not going to go into every story in the collection, but others included are “At the Huts of Ajala,” “Bird Day,” “Deep End,” “Good Boy,” “Little Horses,” “The Beads of Ku,” and “But She’s Only a Dream.” My least favorite story in the collection was “Good Boy,” which mixed computer programming with voodoo. The story was inter-spaced with excerpts from a book on theoretical programming, and I think it was too obtuse for me. Plus, I never connected to the characters.
However, I far and away enjoyed most of the stories in the collection. I can’t wait to read more by Nisi Shawl!