Memorial Day 2020

Very likely it has never been considered a particularly glamorous job for an enlisted solider, sailor, or airman, but the public health and preventive medical corps have had their part to play from the very beginning. In fact, one of George Washington’s first actions after his appointment as command-in-chief of the revolutionary army was to write Congress asking them to establish a “Hospital” for the army (by which he meant a military medical service). In particular, communicable disease was very much on his mind:

I have been particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the small Pox and hitherto we have been so fortunate, as to have every Person removed so soon, as not only to prevent any Communication, but any Alarm or Apprehension it might give in the Camp. We shall continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous Enemy.

Washington was writing this about 20 years before Jenner came up with his smallpox vaccine, but well before Jenner an inoculation technique called variolation had been used. The idea was to take a scab from a recent smallpox victim, rub into into scratches on the person to be inoculated, and hope that the resulting case would be mild. Often it was, but there was also a big risk when applying variolation to an army: triggering an epidemic. Nonetheless, in 1777 Washington took a gamble and inoculated all of his troops while camped in Morristown. It worked.

We have better tools nowadays, of course, but the specter of disease killing more soldiers than bullets remains with us always.

Some of the techniques for avoiding disease are simple yet effective. A medical degree may get you an instant commission as an officer, but we should never forget the enlisted medical staff working in public health and sanitation. A sawbones can put you back together, but the humble hospital corpsman ensuring cleanliness may well save more lives.

COVID-19 is not a war, but we nonetheless should listen to what the medical corpsmen and corpswomen are no doubt saying every day: Wash your hands. Wear your mask.

A reading list for today:

Thanksgiving Day 2018: A Reading List

Galen here, once again borrowing Marlene’s blog for a holiday post.

Hecate the kitten looking forward to turkey – or well, anything she can bite, really.

Sometimes it is the tiniest of things for which I am thankful. For example, this year I am thankful for the little ball of energy and bitey-ness pictured here, who came into our lives (and care) last month and has been growing ever since.

I have been spending a lot of time with her — rather unavoidably, considering she had to be syringe-fed when we got her — but of course I found it no great burden to take care of such a wee kitten. She has been a distraction as well, but only in part.

Unlike Thanksgiving two years ago, I am finding a bit more hope that this country may yet move past the governance by the unfit. Too political a statement for this post? Too political for the virtual Thanksgiving table? Perhaps, but these are not times that permit much beating around the bush nor falling sway to distractions. We can be thankful that there is yet time and space to act to preserve our republic and to work towards a more perfect realization of our country’s best ideals — to say nothing of acting to keep our planet habitable — but so much work lies ahead of us all.

Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for falling prey to hopelessness achieves nothing, but let us also consider what must happen for us to be even more thankful in future years.

Readings for the Pipeline Protest

DAPL route map by Carl Sack, CC-BY
DAPL route map by Carl Sack, CC-BY

Guest post by Galen Charlton

This week of all weeks, we must acknowledge who was here first. Here are some thoughts from those opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.

How to Talk About #NoDAPL: A Native Perspective by Kelley Hayes:

In discussing #NoDAPL, too few people have started from a place of naming that we, as Indigenous people, have a right to defend our water and our lives, simply because we have a natural right to defend ourselves and our communities. When “climate justice,” in a very broad sense, becomes the center of conversation, our fronts of struggle are often reduced to a staging ground for the messaging of NGOs.

Yes, everyone should be talking about climate change, but you should also be talking about the fact that Native communities deserve to survive, because our lives are worth defending in their own right — not simply because “this affects us all.”

We’ve always “Occupied the Prarie” and We’re Not Going Anywhere by the Elders and Leaders of the Sacred Stones Camp, Canonball River.

Sacred Stones Camp was begun by women, as a prayer. It is our prayer that the waters of the homelands of the Standing Rock Tribe and all the peoples of the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires, or “Greater Sioux Nation,” remain pure. That includes the Missouri River and it’s tributaries, flowing into the Mississippi in the greatest river system within the continental boundaries of the United States.

Why the Founder of Standing Rock Sioux Camp Can’t Forget the Whitestone Massacre by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard:

We must remember we are part of a larger story. We are still here. We are still fighting for our lives, 153 years after my great-great-grandmother Mary watched as our people were senselessly murdered. We should not have to fight so hard to survive on our own lands.

My father is buried at the top of the hill, overlooking our camp on the riverbank below. My son is buried there, too. Two years ago, when Dakota Access first came, I looked at the pipeline map and knew that my entire world was in danger. If we allow this pipeline, we will lose everything.

We are the river, and the river is us. We have no choice but to stand up.

Today, we honor all those who died or lost loved ones in the massacre on Whitestone Hill. Today, we honor all those who have survived centuries of struggle. Today, we stand together in prayer to demand a future for our people.

And for more:

Resources for #NoDAPL in American Indians in Children’s Literature by Debbie Reese.

Standing Rock Syllabus by NYC Stands with Standing Rock

This syllabus can be a tool to access research usually kept behind paywalls, or a resource package for those unfamiliar with Indigenous histories and politics.

Guest Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Guest Review: The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian by Andy Weir
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, mass market paperback
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 435
Published by Broadway Books on August 18th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit — he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Galen’s Review:

As an introvert, I sometimes crave time alone to do my own thing. Having a whole planet to myself would be a bit much though.

What would you do in astronaut Mark Watney’s boots? The only human being on Mars; your crewmates speeding away, thinking you had been killed in a storm; the rest of humanity 12 light-minutes away; any prospect of a rescue years away?

You would have a choice: die, sooner or later, with what degree of dignity you can muster — or fight to survive, knowing that the most likely outcome is still your death.

Escape Rating: A- The Martian breaks no new ground in the genre of near-future hard science fiction: there are no high concepts, no trippy rambles through strange histories, no examinations of alien societies, and no black monoliths. Instead, Weir offers a competent tale of tackling a problem in the face of long odds and indifferent nature… and winning.

A little over half of the book is in the form of Mark Watney’s log entries, and fortunately, his voice is engaging: snarky, determined, and smart, without being the voice of a secular plaster saint. The rest of the book serves as a love letter to NASA and human spaceflight programs in general. I can only hope that when push comes to shove, the nations of the world will demonstrate the same degree of cooperation in solving problems on Earth and beyond that was shown in The Martian.

For the folks who have seen the movie, the book offers pretty much the same experience: the main difference is the addition of a couple more hurdles for Watney to overcome.

The book is not perfect: while the cast of characters working to get Watney home is diverse and women are invariably portrayed as competent, ultimately the tale is that of somebody enjoying the epitome of male privilege: having thousands of people help rescue him and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to so. That’s a bit of a tendentious reading, of course — but suffice it to say that some readers may be left behind: insofar as they may reasonably wonder if somebody who looks like them would have been left behind, or have never gotten to Mars in the first place.

And yet… while we have problems enough on Earth, still ad astra per aspera resonates for me. If it does for you, you may well enjoy The Martian

Zaytouneh and the question of what to do

gataktdToday I am borrowing Marlene’s blog to write about a picture. Back in September, a boat carrying Syrian refugees landed in Lesbos, Greece — an occurrence that nowadays is surely not exceptional. Here is a picture of one of the refugees, along with his kitten.

The cat’s name is Zaytouneh, or Olive. If Google Translate is to be trusted, the guy might write his cat’s name like this: زيتون.

It should surprise nobody that a man who is running for his life will nonetheless pause a moment and reach for his cat. I am glad Zaytouneh made it, but he or she has a burden that may be a bit too much for one cat to bear. Consider this (translated) excerpt from a news article by the Greek source Protothema:

The picture has become viral on all social media, as it gives a different, more human dimension to this humanitarian tragedy.

Wait, what? The human being himself does not provide enough of a human dimension, and the cat therefore must carry the load? We live in strange times.

Also: what is his name? I don’t know.

To be fair, he is not obligated to provide it; he deserves his privacy. I hope he is doing OK, and I hope that if the cat is required to be a symbol of the “human dimension” of the refugees fleeing war and rack, that at least some people will see it and remember that it is not a pack of aliens who are fleeing Syria… but humans, like us, some of whom have favorite kittens.

What to do? I think we who live in the U.S. have at least one fundamental obligation: to not give in to fear; to not let fear cloud our sight; to then see that the refugees, as fellow humans, deserve our protection and aid. Not to beat the drums of war, but to consider that since we do have a military whose logistical abilities are the best in the world, we have a unique opportunity: our navy can ensure that refugees boats and rafts do not founder in the Mediterranean.

We can do that for them; we can try to carry instead of break.

We can do it for him. Or if need be, do it for Zaytouneh.

Readings for Veterans Day, 2015

Some readings for this day when we reckon — and face — the cost of our wars.


How African Americans responded to the postwar resurgence of white supremacy reflected the depths to which the aspirations of the war and expectations for democracy shaped their racial and political consciousness. The war radicalized many African Americans and deepened a commitment to combat white racial violence. At the same time, the contributions of the soldiers, as well as peoples of African descent more broadly, to the war effort swelled racial pride. Marcus Garvey tapped into this social, political, and cultural milieu. A native of Jamaica, Garvey brought his new organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), to New York and soon attracted thousands of followers. The UNIA, predicated upon the principles of Black Nationalism and African diasporic unity, quickly became the most dominant mass movement of the postwar era. A host of other radical organizations and newspapers complemented the UNIA and signaled the arrival of the “New Negro.”

From African Americans and World War I, an essay by Dr. Chad Williams.


Charles Vernon Bush was the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

He fought in Vietnam, and was awarded a Bronze Star.

A couple years before his death, Bush wrote a chapter for Attitudes Aren’t Free: Thinking Deeply About Diversity in the U.S. Armed Forces by Air University Press, February 2010:

Diversity efforts within the US government, particularly the Department of
Defense (DOD) and the intelligence community (IC), have proven to be
inadequate. Their failure is largely due to organizations approaching diversity
more as a personnel program than a critical mission element imperative to
national security. Leaders often discuss and study the importance of diversity,
but little evidence has emerged over recent years to indicate they fully embrace
it. Hence, military organizations (broadly defined to include the larger intelligence
communities outside of the armed services) fall woefully short in establishing
diversity within their senior executive and officer ranks. Moreover,
DOD and IC leaders continue to establish and communicate incongruent department
diversity mission statements, objectives, and goals that lack prescribed,
mandatory performance standards. Because there are no prescribed
performance standards, there exists no leadership accountability and thus no
leadership responsibility for monitoring diversity. Therefore, organizations deliver
poor and unacceptable outcomes on diversity objectives, which leaders
regrettably accept.

He had a Twitter account, @cvbgrf. It is not everybody who can just link to their Wikipedia biography from their Twitter profile.


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

— Wilfred Owen, killed on 4 November 1918, one week prior to the signing of the armistice.


Female veterans battling PTSD from sexual trauma fight for redress

Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant


Soldat Du Droit. Picture by Gordon T. Lawson on Flickr, CC-BY
Soldat Du Droit. Picture by Gordon T. Lawson on Flickr, CC-BY

Guest Review: How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth ShapiroFormat read: hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Nonfiction
Length: 228 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Date Released: April 5, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Could extinct species, like mammoths and passenger pigeons, be brought back to life? The science says yes. In How to Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro, evolutionary biologist and pioneer in “ancient DNA” research, walks readers through the astonishing and controversial process of de-extinction. From deciding which species should be restored, to sequencing their genomes, to anticipating how revived populations might be overseen in the wild, Shapiro vividly explores the extraordinary cutting-edge science that is being used–today–to resurrect the past. Journeying to far-flung Siberian locales in search of ice age bones and delving into her own research–as well as those of fellow experts such as Svante Pääbo, George Church, and Craig Venter–Shapiro considers de-extinction’s practical benefits and ethical challenges. Would de-extinction change the way we live? Is this really cloning? What are the costs and risks? And what is the ultimate goal?

Using DNA collected from remains as a genetic blueprint, scientists aim to engineer extinct traits–traits that evolved by natural selection over thousands of years–into living organisms. But rather than viewing de-extinction as a way to restore one particular species, Shapiro argues that the overarching goal should be the revitalization and stabilization of contemporary ecosystems. For example, elephants with genes modified to express mammoth traits could expand into the Arctic, re-establishing lost productivity to the tundra ecosystem.

Looking at the very real and compelling science behind an idea once seen as science fiction, How to Clone a Mammoth demonstrates how de-extinction will redefine conservation’s future.

My Review:

Humanity, of course, has a lot to answer for — and Jurassic Park has set some expectations in the minds of non-scientists that science is unlikely to ever be able to deliver on.

What do we have to answer for? We’re just so damn efficient about killing off other species: by hunting them to the last member and by destroying their habitats, we’ve all too often shown that there’s space for us but not them. Want to stroke the fur of a mammoth? Pet an auroch (then run away)? Hear the chatter of a flock of passenger pigeons?  You’re out of luck — and so are they.

Of course, extinction itself is a normal state of affairs. 99% percent all of species that have ever existed are extinct, and humanity need not accept the blame for the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs.

Jurassic Park was ostensibly about bringing back some dinosaurs — and what could go wrong if you let them reproduce — but it’s not much of a stretch to wonder: if we could restore a dinosaur from a bit of amber… could we recover from our past mistakes? And in doing so, atone for them?

As it turns out, amber is rather bad at preserving DNA. No dinosaurs from fossilized tree sap — nor anything else once extinct.  Nonetheless, the prospect of de-extinction is compelling.

Beth Shapiro’s books grounds this dream in what, at present, seems to be  possible — and what is not.

Reality Rating A-: Shapiro, who is a professor at UC Santa Cruz and one of the principal investigators at the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab, ably describes how one might go about attempting to restore an extinct species: finding some or part of its genome, finding another species that is a close enough relative to bring a fertilized egg to term, then dealing with the problem of raising the offspring.  Along the way, she provides vignettes of her experiences in the field gathering mammoth DNA (and one conclusion I can draw from that: I do not expect that Dr. Shapiro would ever participate in a project to bring an extinct mosquito back).

Moreover, Shapiro discusses why one might bring an extinct species back — and argues that trying to do so should be for reasons that go beyond assuaging an inchoate sense of guilt.  This passage is key:

In my mind, it is this ecological resurrection, and not species resurrection, that is the real value of de-extinction. We should think of de-extinction not in terms of which life form we will bring back, but what ecological interactions we would like to see restored.

It doesn’t necessarily do any particular favor for a mammoth (or as Shapiro explains is much more likely, an Asian elephant that has some mammoth genes adapting it to cold conditions) to stride the tundra again all alone — but as part of an effort to restore the subarctic grasslands that the mammoths mere presence help create and maintain, de-extinction efforts can give us the ability to restore ecosystems.

Playing God? Perhaps. But after having already disrupted so many of the planet’s ecosystems, we may not have much choice but to muddle along with our technology lest homo sapiens drops out of the 1% that has so far survived.  Shapiro makes a compelling argument that de-extinction projects, while neither panaceas nor time machines, belong in our ecological toolkit.

The sections of the book that discuss the technical matters of how one might go about recovering ancient DNA and cloning animals seem pretty accessible to anybody who remembers a bit of their high school biology — and unlike Stephen Hawking, Shapiro did not need to worry about each equation in the text halving her readership.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Guest Review: Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

moriarty by anthony horowitzFormat read: paperback ARC
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, paperback, audiobook
Genre: Mystery
Series: Sherlock Holmes, #2
Length: 309 pages
Publisher: Harper
Date Released: December 9, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

The game is once again afoot in this thrilling mystery from the bestselling author of The House of Silk, sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate, which explores what really happened when Sherlock Holmes and his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty tumbled to their doom at the Reichenbach Falls.

Internationally bestselling author Anthony Horowitz’s nail-biting new novel plunges us back into the dark and complex world of detective Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty—dubbed the Napoleon of crime” by Holmes—in the aftermath of their fateful struggle at the Reichenbach Falls.

Days after the encounter at the Swiss waterfall, Pinkerton detective agent Frederick Chase arrives in Europe from New York. Moriarty’s death has left an immediate, poisonous vacuum in the criminal underworld, and there is no shortage of candidates to take his place—including one particularly fiendish criminal mastermind.

Chase and Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones, a devoted student of Holmes’s methods of investigation and deduction originally introduced by Conan Doyle in “The Sign of Four”, must forge a path through the darkest corners of England’s capital—from the elegant squares of Mayfair to the shadowy wharfs and alleyways of the London Docks—in pursuit of this sinister figure, a man much feared but seldom seen, who is determined to stake his claim as Moriarty’s successor.

Review by Galen:

Two sets of footsteps leading to the edge of a ledge over the abyss… none returning. This is an image that has haunted fans of the writings of John Watson (as transmitted by Arthur Conan Doyle) for over a century.

Conan Doyle had perhaps hoped to be rid of the responsibility of publishing the chronicles of England’s most famous consulting detective, but the reading public would not allow that. And of course, “The Adventure of the Empty House” revealed that Holmes did not tumble to his death in the Reichenbach Falls, but instead had more pressing matters to attend to.

house of silk by anthony horowitzBut what about Moriarty? The linchpin of a crime network does not simply vanish without consequences. In Anthony Horowitz’s return to Holmes pastiches (his first foray, The House of Silk, was reviewed by Marlene back in 2012), he explores the forces rushing to fill in the vacuum.

Escape Rating B: The book maintains a fast and engaging pace, more suspense than mystery, from the moment Pinkerton detective Frederick Chase arrives up to view the body of Moriarty to the end when the power vacuum gets resolved. Chase teams up with Scotland Yard detective Athelney Jones, who reacts to his run-in with Holmes during “The Sign of Four” by becoming obsessed with Holmes’ methods, to the detriment of his own skill as a detective.

The nature of the twist ending becomes apparent well before its big reveal, but that doesn’t significantly detract from the book. I found the portrayal of Jones to be particularly sympathetic: Holmes, who did have an arrogant streak, left collateral damage in his wake, and it is good to see that acknowledged.

For a Holmes pastiche that features neither Holmes nor Watson, Moriarty does an excellent job of fleshing out a view of Holmes’ nemesis as being truly worthy of that name — while demonstrating a degree of emotional depth that is unusual in a mystery and suspense novel.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.
***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Omenana: speculative fiction from Africa and the African diaspora

Guest post by Galen

I’m a fan of short stories, particularly fantasy, science fiction, and broadly, speculative fiction. Although many of the print science fiction and fantasy magazines have had struggles in recent years, there’s been an explosion of online publication featuring speculative short stories. Some of the usual suspects include, Clarksworld, and Strange Horizons, but for this post I’d like to feature a Nigerian online magazine I’ve run across via a post on Metafilter.

Omenana issue 1 coverIt’s called Omenana, and its first issue was published this month. From the that issue’s editorial:

Science fiction is still very new in Nigeria, but while we could barely find 10 people to contribute to the anthology in 2010, there are now hundreds of writers who will readily try their hand at the genre. Just as I did, more writers are recognising that we have a copious amount of material for speculative fiction here in Nigeria. That means we need platforms where these stories can be anchored. To help this along, Chinelo Onwualu and I present Omenana, a bimonthly speculative fiction e-publication.

And from Chinelo Onwualu’s essay in that issue, The Unbearable Solitude of Being an African Fan Girl:

Being an African fan girl is a strange, liminal thing. You’re never quite sure that you exist, you see. A part of you is rooted in your culture and its expectations for how a woman ought to behave – church, family, school – but another is flying off into the stars carrying a samurai sword and a machete. Not one thing or another, you’re both at the same time.

You know you are not alone. There are thousands of women just like you all over the continent. They have fought to forge their unique identities outside of the prescribed roles they were expected to fill. They have kept that childhood sense of wonder and aren’t ashamed to squeal like schoolgirls when they get excited. They run when they are in a hurry and they take the stairs two at a time. Like you, they are still curious and aren’t afraid to ask questions, but they scattered like magic beans across a vast farm. They are growing into their own twisted shapes and no one around them can understand why.

A standout story in the first issue is HostBods by Tendai Huchu. It is set in a time when mind transference technology is possible — and indeed so commonplace that it is possible to rent the use of another person’s body for a period of time. However, being a “HostBod” is a risky and usually short-lived career, and the people who do it tend to be treated as if they had all of the value of purely artificial robots — in other words, they’re disposable. Ordinarily, a HostBod isn’t supposed to be aware of what goes on when another person uses them, but for the protagonist… things are a little different.

Another story, Winter in Lagos by Saratu Abiola, takes a simple premise — Lagos experiencing its first snowfall — and uses it to turn a mirror onto contemporary issues in Nigeria.

Other features in the first issue are an interview with Ibrahim Ganiyu and art by Kelsey Arrington.

I look forward to Omenana’s next issue.

Guest Review: Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi OkoraforFormat read: paperback
Formats available: ebook, paperback
Genre: speculative fiction
Length: 241 pages
Publisher: Prime Books
Date Released: September 29, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Kabu kabu—unregistered illegal Nigerian taxis—generally get you where you need to go. Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu Kabu, however, takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations you didn’t know you needed. This debut short story collection by an award-winning author includes notable previously published material, a new novella co-written with New York Times-bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, six additional original stories, and a brief foreword by Whoopi Goldberg.

Review by Galen:

Picture a spider made of metal on an oil pipeline, standing attentively as it is serenaded by a woman. This is but one of the fantastical images that await the reader of Nnedi Okorafor’s short story collection Kabu Kabu.

One takes a taxi to get from one place to another, to make a transition of place. Kabu Kabu is full of transitions. The title story, written with Alan Dean Foster, tells the tale of a trip that a lawyer, Ngozi, takes from Chicago to a village in Nigeria to attend a family wedding. This would be an ordinary enough trip, save that Ngozi finds the one kabu kabu in Chicago and misses her flight, but ends up making a more fundamental trip through the byways of legends to her other home.

Some of the tales occupy the intersection of Nigeria, its colonizers, and those who are stripping it of oil. “The Magical Negro” is a little confection that turns the trope of that name on its head and answers the question of what would happen if a Magical Negro decides to stop putting up with being a secondary character in the tales of other, paler, folk. “Spider the Artist” is a science fiction tale that posits oil companies dealing with theft from the pipelines by installing killer, spider-like robots to patrol them. These monsters, created without regard for the people driven by desperation, make transitions of their own: becoming so smart that they take up agency on their own account (and declare war) — but also, at least in one case, becoming able to make connections with people through music. “The Popular Mechanic” explores another response to the pipelines snaking their way through the land, while “Moom!” takes a news account of a swordfish attacking a pipeline and… expands on it.

Several stories follow transitions of women from traditional roles to owners of their own tales. One set of stories (“How Inyang Got Her Wings”, “The Winds of Harmattan”, “Windseekers”, and “Biafra”) tell part of the tale of Arro-yo, a windseeker. “The Palm Tree Bandit” is an origin story for a super-heroine who defies norms by climbing palm trees… and then grows into a legend.

Other tales take incidents from the lives of the author, her sister, and her mother and recast them in a fantastic light. Once, Okorafor and her sister visited a house that had been built for their father… but whose contents had been stripped by relatives. They decided to nonetheless stay in the house for three days. “The Carpet” takes that incident and gives magical life to the noises in the night during their stay. “The Baboon War” takes her mother’s story of fighting of baboons on her way to school and adds a deeper layer: what if the baboons were protecting something along the path?

Escape Rating B+: This collection is a great introduction to Okorafor’s range as a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism. There is also a horror story (“On The Road”) that, while being really creepy, also portrays a woman’s transition from city cop to… someone new.

I recommend this collection to anybody who enjoys science fiction and fantasy, but who also is tired of some of the genres’ hoary tropes.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.