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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Strangers Among Us: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Anthology About Outcasts

I normally don't review anthologies unless I've committed to review them due to a request, or I downloaded them from Net Galley or Edelweiss.  One reason is that I usually don't read the entire anthology when I haven't agreed to review it.   A short story can get very short shrift from me, then I'm on to the next one.  So, in order to be fair to the anthology,  I'm going to be very open about the fact that I read about a third of Strangers Among Us edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law.   I also didn't like every story that I did read.

I loved the theme of this anthology.  Outcasts and underdogs are often favorite characters for me.   I thought that there might be stories that would be intensely meaningful for me.  I also think that it's important to point out that this is a Canadian anthology and that part of the proceeds are going to the Canadian Mental Health Association.   There is information about mental illness appended to the anthology.   I got this book from the library.


I read some Goodreads reviews and noticed that my favorite story in the anthology was under attack.  These reviews then became the primary motivating factor behind my review.   I profoundly disagree with the perspective of those reviewers and I think that the opposing perspective should be aired.

The story in question is "Troubles" by Sherry Peters.  Before I read those reviews, I had different comments about this story in my book journal that I'm going to cover in this paragraph.  I almost didn't read this story because I dislike reading about the Fae.  What annoys me most about the Fae is that they engage in senseless struggles over dominance just like humans.   Since I don't enjoy reading about that type of human conflict, seeing it in a fantasy context is not an improvement.   On the other hand, I do love reading stories that take place in Ireland particularly if they deal with a human protagonist who has a paranormal gift.

In "Troubles" the central character, Melanie, was diagnosed as mentally ill. The story questioned the validity of this diagnosis. The reviewers who were opposed to this story apparently thought that questioning any diagnosis is tantamount to questioning the existence of mental illness.   It seems to me that psychology is not a science in the same way that mathematics is a science.  Two plus one will always equal three.  Psychology involves interpretation of behavior.   Interpretations are subjective.  This is why psychologists and psychiatrists can disagree about diagnoses.  There was a time when homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness due to prejudice.   The reason why psychology no longer views homosexuality as a mental illness is because of sustained advocacy for the cause of LGBT individuals.   If that diagnosis hadn't been questioned, nothing would have changed.

Fantasy and science fiction are "what if" genres.   "Troubles" asks "what if" the Fae were real.   One possibility is that it could invalidate a diagnosis of mental illness.  If Melanie really wasn't mentally ill because she saw the Fae, then trusting her perceptions is empowerment.  I think the idea that you should never question authority is harmful.   This is not the same as believing that those in authority  are always wrong.   I do wonder why people who think that authority should never be questioned were reading an anthology in support of outcasts and underdogs in the first place.

My favorite science fiction story in this anthology is "The Dog and the Sleepwalker" by James Alan Gardner.  He posits a society in which biotechnological augmentation is so common that people who aren't augmented are regarded as inferior.  They are actually called "dogs" which may offend dog lovers.   The "dog" protagonist is far from inferior.   In fact, "dogs" perform an essential function on spaceships.   I very much liked this portrayal of a person who was different as valuable.

Among the stories that I read in Strangers Among Us, the one that I disliked most was "The Wrath of Gaia" by Mahtab Narsimhan.  One reason why I disliked it is because the Indian author didn't use the name of the Hindu Earth Goddess.   Her name is Prithvi.  See this article about her on Wikipedia.  I knew this from my studies of Hindu mythology.  In fact, many years ago I wrote a poem about Prithvi.  The author portrays a pair of isolated women in a forest in India using the Greek name, Gaia, for the Earth Goddess.  I didn't find it believable that they would use the name Gaia.  It seemed inauthentic.

When I averaged the ratings of the stories I read, I came up with a grade of B  for the entire anthology.   This may be considered grade inflation since two thirds of the stories didn't hold my attention.   So I won't be rating this book on Goodreads.



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