It is both gratifying and heartbreaking when reality begins to resemble sci-fi and fantasy: genre fiction gets an unexpected upgrade as the predictions of mere writers come true. This collection of twenty sci-fi infused fairy tales, published in September of 2016, came at exactly the right time. Now that dystopia is becoming the new normal, these stories are disturbingly relevant, and close reading is often a painful experience. The heroines/heroes of these tales–many of them competent scientists and engineers–challenge our understanding of gender norms and identity while saving the day, or at least fighting for clarity. As a further bonus Circuits and Slippers draws from classic and lesser-known tales from various world cultures. Appropriately, “Rapunzel,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Princess and the Pea” each get two re-tellings.
A sampling of what you will find: a new “Jack and the Beanstalk” set in a dystopia struggling with a food shortage; a truly interesting Red Riding Hood, who is both hunter and hunted in a fragmented, fascist society; a new version of “The Princess and the Pea” featuring a hybrid who must outwit the queen in a high-tech pea test; a zoo-specimen Rapunzel who believes herself to be the last of our species; a Goldilocks who is part of an “experimental procedure” that forces questions about her identity and the nature of reality; and my favorite, a retelling of “The Little Mermaid” stars a male cyborg in a beautifully rendered seaside setting.
Disaster, or any life-altering crisis, is always a crucial element in the landscape of dystopia. An illness or epidemic can serve as an equalizer in the power dynamic that controls human destiny. Doctor Paige Bell, the heroine of L.G. Keltner’s “Treating the Beast,” a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” is forced to reconsider history and the meaning of evil. She has no choice but to treat a corrupt official from a privileged background, Chancellor Beaumont, whose family is guilty of involvement with terrorists and a subsequent cover-up. Paige’s unwillingness to condemn his fascist actions is both poignant and infuriating: “There had been so many times when she would have given anything to tell this man just what she thought of him. Yet now, faced with the perfect opportunity to tell him that people were right to see him as a monster, the words wouldn’t come. Was it compassion on her part, or weakness? Was she right to question her assumptions?”
Paige is a scientist, trained to be objective. She is living in a world where she cannot be too careful and where she is still called upon to perform her duties as a doctor. But I prefer to cling to the advice that Paige’s dissident father gave her before his arrest: “Be brave. Act confident, even when you’re not. The world is too cruel for self-doubt.” I urge everyone to follow his advice, to keep writing and speaking out. There is so much work to be done.