Broadening Horizons

I usually don't make many New Year's resolutions, but I do enjoy using a new year as an opportunity to make reading resolutions. They usually focus on ways to diversify and enrich my reading experiences.

Last year, I resolved to read older books instead of focusing on new releases, and I had modest success. For 2014, I decided to focus my reading resolution on rediscovering science fiction.

In my teenage years, I went through a science fiction phase that consisted mainly of classics from the 1960s and '70s. I plowed through my dad's collection of paperbacks and sought out other titles by authors like Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kurt Vonnegut. I loved the immersive worlds those authors built and the inventive social commentary inherent in many of their works.

Over time, though, my reading interests shifted.

The Urbana Free Library has an amazing science fiction collection, and as someone who helps select books for the library, I see all the intriguing new titles as they arrive. Many of them end up on my "to read" list, only to fall to the bottom and remain unread. This year, I want to change that, but it can be hard to know where to start with such a rich and varied genre.

Fortunately, I discovered the Outspoken Authors series by PM Press while exploring our science fiction stacks. Short stories can be a handy way to get exposure to a new genre, and each of the slim books in this series combines short stories or a novella by a science fiction author, as well as interviews and commentary.

It is designed to showcase edgy writers with "provocative and politically challenging stories" and highlights both classic authors (such as Ursula K. Le Guin) as well as younger and upcoming authors.

John Shirley is an author known best for his cyberpunk novels, and he has published over 30 books since the late 1970s. His entry in the Outspoken Authors, "New Taboos," features a new novella, "A State of Imprisonment."

It is a scary yet darkly humorous story set in the near future, in which the entire state of Arizona has become dominated by an immense privatized prison system. Those incarcerated there live hopeless lives, invisible to the outside world and trapped by the horrifying security system that includes drones and robotic worms.

Media attention is tightly restricted, until one desperate journalist manages to make her way inside. The reporter sees more than her guides intended, leading to a battle for her own freedom.

This novella and the essays included showcase Shirley's dark wit and progressive ideas, as well as his imaginative and often chilling visions of the future.

Nalo Hopkinson is another author I have intended to read, so I was happy to see an entry in this series for her as well: "Report from Planet Midnight."

Hopkinson is a Jamaican author who has published numerous short stories and novels. Her work is known for exploring issues of race and gender within the science fiction realm and for pushing the boundaries of the genre.

There are two very different short stories in this volume, "Message in a Bottle" and "Shift." The first one is a time-travel tale in which a man discovers that his friend's strange adopted daughter is one of several beings sent from the future, in the form of small children, to gather artifacts for a mysterious project.

"Shift" is a lyrical and dreamy interpretation of William Shakespeare's "The Tempest," infused with Caribbean myths and traditions. It focuses on the character of Caliban, reimagined as a Caribbean immigrant, in a fantastical battle with his sister and his mother.

I found both of these entries in the PM Press Outspoken Authors series to be entertaining introductions to the style and philosophies of these writers, and I am sure they would also appeal to fans looking for learn more about their favorite authors.

I am looking forward to checking out more from this series, and given the breadth of our collection at the library, I'm sure many more gems are waiting to be discovered.

Whatever new literary explorations you want to take, don't forget to check your local library for resources.

Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at khopkins@tufl.info.

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