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Originally published October 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 26, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Science fiction

Fantastic fiction embraces the reality of diversity, from the Bronze Age to San Francisco

The face of fantastic fiction is changing. More than just its face: This former locus of racial and cultural stereotypes, where Robert Heinlein's...

Special to The Seattle Times

The face of fantastic fiction is changing. More than just its face: This former locus of racial and cultural stereotypes, where Robert Heinlein's spaceship pilots look, sound and act like 1950s Pat Boone fans and J.R.R. Tolkien's doughty elves battle hordes of Asiatic Orcs, is undergoing a transformation that's more than skin deep. Three recent novels demonstrate the genre's growing ability to represent human diversity.

"Slaves of the Shinar" by Justin Allen (Overlook, 432 pp., $25.95) is a self-described "epic fantasy of the ancient world." Set in the Middle East of the Bronze Age, it follows the exploits of a roving foreign thief and a slave escaped from pale Northern invaders as these two are drawn into the world's first great war.

In a switch on typical roles, it's the foreign thief who's black, rather than the slave. Uruk, a sub-Saharan African, swashbuckles his way through exotic temples Conan-style, stealing magical jewels and rescuing virgins, while the enslaved Anders plans his revenge on his militaristic masters. With a driving plot and an excellent eye for living, breathing, tactile detail, author Allen brings immediacy to this modern version of the Gilgamesh legend while keeping it in context with the rest of the not-necessarily-white world of thousands of years ago.

"9Tail Fox" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Nightshade, 260 pp., $14.95) takes place in the near future in San Francisco, which has always been "a city where the minorities made up the majority" in the words of protagonist Bobby Zha.

Zha, of mixed Cantonese, English and Spanish ancestry, is fairly representative of the city's demographics but very unusual in one way: He has died and come back to life. An SFPD officer mysteriously killed while investigating a supposedly routine break-in, Zha finds himself in the body of a victim of a 30-year coma.

Author Grimwood explains his character's resurrection in both spiritual and scientific terms, making "Fox" difficult to classify as either fantasy or hard science fiction. But the book is far too engaging a read to lend itself to a lot of serious analysis. As the now-awakened Zha fumbles his way to understanding the cause of his own demise, he encounters a crack-addicted kitten, a chauffeur with an astoundingly good armory of illegal weapons and a Russian oligarch willing to do anything — anything — to live. Alternately street-smart and self-involved, alienated and at home in the Chinatown his grandfather helped shape, Zha is a completely believable hero.

"Ragamuffin," by Tobias Buckell (Tor, 320 pp., $24.95). Buckell represents an important force behind the genre's change. One of a growing number of nonwhite authors writing fantastic fiction, Buckell hasn't let his fondness for rocket ships, wormholes and galactic empires keep him from populating his fast-paced, pulp-esque books with the descendants of Aztec warriors and Rastafarians.

"Ragamuffin" opens on a reservation reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa's shantytowns. Though they were supposedly emancipated more than 300 years earlier, any humans not kept as pets by the alien "Gahe" are imprisoned behind the reservation's 200-foot walls.

Nashara, the novel's dark-skinned heroine, escapes to another planet, but the Gahe aren't the only aliens oppressing humans — they're not even the most powerful. As Nashara searches for other human freedom-fighters, she lands in ever-tighter corners. In one scene, she uses a giant machine gun to propel herself across the zero-G center of a dying space habitat.

While all this action's going on, the inner lives of Buckell's diverse cast range through the brittle self-justifications of collaborators to the fanaticism of xenophobes to the pragmatism and weariness of those dedicated to the struggle for human rights in a universe where we are very much a minority. Far from sci-fi's earlier all-white futures, light years beyond attempts to simply crayon in differing shades of characters' skins or give them Swahili-sounding names, Buckell's work deals with complex racial issues in a way worthy of the self-proclaimed "literature of ideas": head-on, with no visible flinching, while still managing to give its readers a rollicking good time.

Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction

for The Seattle Times. She is co-author

of "Writing the Other: A Practical

Approach," with Cynthia Ward.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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