Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dust by DJolder

This week Lightspeed Magazine published Dust by Daniel José Older.  I first encountered Daniel as one of the editors of Long Hidden, and he's an absolutely fantastic and thought provoking person to follow on Twitter (although too prolific for me to keep up with - I content myself with checking in periodically).  It would also be worth your time to take a couple minutes and check out this video on why not to italicize spanish in english language stories.

So when I learned that Daniel had a new story out, I went over to read Dust, and afterwards tweeted
Here's a bit of an expansion on that.  Not a review, more like a the encounter between Daniel's stories & my expectations:

I've been diving more into short fiction (inspired in large part by my enjoyment of Long Hidden) and am slowly realizing that I'm really searching for some "hard" sci-fi a la the Mesklin stories of Hal Clement.  (or something, because Married by Helena Bell, in Clarkesworlde's Upgraded absolutely clicked for me, despite not being that.  I have no idea what I want to read, but I need to practice letting the author guide me).  Dust is set on a mining operation on an asteroid covered in red dust and hurtling towards earth, but it's not a hard sci-fi story.  The opening paragraphs set the tone strongly:
Very late at night, when the buzz of drill dozers has died out, I can hear her breathing. I know that sounds crazy. I don’t care.
Tonight, I have to concentrate extra hard because there’s a man lying beside me; he’s snoring with the contented abandon of the well-fucked and all that panting has heavied up the air in my quarters. Still, I can hear her, hear her like she’s right behind my ear or curled up inside my heart. She’s not of course. If anything, I’m curled up in hers.
Even with this tone set, I never really just let Daniel's story carry me away as the protagonist Jax (whose body switches between male and female every few days) goes through a day of crisis while meeting an old friend and trying to save the earth.  I could have, but instead I kept finding myself wanting to yell "more of [shiny thing you hinted at]! less of [story that you're telling]!"
And the thing is, Dust is a very contained story focusing on Jax, their relationship with Maya, a friend from years ago back to make one final push to save the asteroid, and the miners that Jax (as chief engineer) supervises.  It packs an emotional punch and even as I sat and read and silently argued with it, I found myself admiring the transitions between scenes, and the craft with which Daniel built his story.  
After finishing Dust my grumbles went something like this:
So, wait, Jax just gets to make the asteroid swerve so that everything will be OK? That seems ... convenient.
Well, actually, it's pretty clear that Jax has some kind of relationship with the asteroid & the dust.  And within the first few paragraphs Daniel's established that, shown that this is partly because of Jax's status as an outsider, and hinted at why the asteroid/dust might be special.  But when Jax starts to explain, they're interrupted by a bar fight.  Because this isn't a story about dust technobabble.  It's about Jax and Maya and living on this asteroid as a genderqueer individual.
Yeah, speaking of that, Jax just switches sex every few days? What's up with that?  Where's the explanation for how that works?
There's no explanation.  This isn't a story about physio-babble about why someone's body changes.  It definitely does acknowledge the fetishization & bigotry that can result.  It alludes to the ways that this has always impacted Jax.  It talks about how the relationships Jax forms are colored by that identity, but gives Jax an identity beyond their genderqueerness.  In other words, it does a phenomenal job of making Jax a complete person, and putting a complete society around them.  Hell, it even alludes to the common stereotypes about gender and how those are complicated both by Jax's identity and just not always accurate.  Jax and the people and society around them are the best part of the story.  What are you complaining about?
OK, fair enough.  But speaking of this society, there are big political factions, an earth essentially destroyed by the "Chemical Barons", a giant universe around this story.  I like space operas.  Can I have some of that, please?
Here's where I finally realized what was going on.  I went in with my own expectations and tried to fit Dust into them.  And Dust does contain the seeds of a lot of other stories.  Stories that could be giant space operas, hard sci-fi explorations, or even further explorations of relationships and identity that don't cleanly fit into society.  But Dust is an amazing story of Jax and Maya and a moment of crisis.  I liked it a lot, but my strongest reaction was that it's really smart.  Daniel knew the story he wanted to tell, and nestled it neatly among a setting so convincingly realized that I wandered off on my own, trying to get my stories shoehorned in.  
I'm starting to understand the impulse towards fanfic.

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