Let’s Discuss — Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Fever make you weak at first, tired and confused. That be the disease eating up your red blood cells. Then it make it so you can’t sleep and you start seeing things. Crazy things. And skin that be black or brown or white all turn the same color–chalky yellow. that be your blood failing and your liver giving up […] Your lips crack, your mind go, and you start seeing more things that ain’t there, knowing they coming to get you (21)

For me, successful speculative fiction, specifically, books dubbed as “dystopian” need to have a healthy combination of political and philosophical undertones, and a unique source of conflict. They don’t need to happen during a specific time period. They don’t need to take place in a certain setting. (Although, innovative scenery is almost always appreciated) They just require politics + philosophy + conflict.  I relate this back to my canon of favorite speculative novels, which have not been apolitical or lacking philosophical development, or haven’t taken place on some distant planet. So where am I going with this?

I finished reading Orleans. It follows the journey of Fen de la guerre, resident of Orleans (formally New Orleans), which has been decimated by hurricanes and Delta fever. Almost every state connected to the Mississippi Delta has been abandoned by the United States’ Government, and everyone in them left to fend for themselves. The protagonist, Fen, ends up without her blood tribe, protecting a newborn child and ushering an outsider around the deadly swamps and bayous of Orleans.

While reading, I was impressed by the world-building. New Orleans has been transformed into third-world circumstance and is environmentally unstable for its inhabitants. Barter is currency, blood tribe is family and promise is just that. Established speculative fiction titles have a tendency to rely on Anglo-parallel worlds as found in High Fantasy, or futuristic space, found in hard Science Fiction. With Orleans the reader has a chance to experience something different; the parasitic and hypnotic ruins of the Delta.

When he enter me, it be through the skin. First a swift wipe of a cold cotton pad, then a needle, sharp and hot, into the biggest vein of my right arm. I cry out, but don’t dare move ‘less the needle tear me even more. He be sweating as he pierce my arm, the soft mound of vein inside my right elbow. He stroke my legs as the blood flows out of my body into the waiting bags. So red, like rubies in the firelight. He take from me until I faint (96)

So here we have an innovative setting, but as mentioned above, that is not a requirement for a successful Dystopian.  What I found very interesting about this novel is despite the source of conflict, it was oddly apolitical. Other than the government abandonment, there was no in-depth power struggle. Yes, blood tribes feud, but the reader gets the feeling these clashes are the norm. Where is the tension and build up between each faction? Who has the power?  At one point there’s the introduction of a potentially devastating element, that if placed in the wrong hands could change the future of the Delta forever, but (and this is a huge “but”) nothing happens with it. On another level, it was odd to me that political undertones concerning race and class were briefly touched upon. An entire portion of the South, which contained a significant number brown people, was basically left for dead– Let’s talk about that? No? Okay, then.

And then there’s some confusion (maybe only on my part) about personal philosophies of central characters, Fen and Daniel. And I’ll be honest I’m a little hesitant to bring up philosophy in a Young Adult storyline, but when you write Dystopian , I strongly believe solid commentary on existence or values or knowledge should be included. With that said, I found Fen and Daniel’s perspectives to be very one-dimensional in this regard. We know Fen wants to save Baby Girl. And? We know Daniel might be able to conjure up a cure for Delta Fever. And? The ABs have guns now. And? Fen cuts off her hair. And? These things happen but there is no true gravity behind the decisions or actions. They just happen…

I don’t want to seem like I hated this book because I didn’t. It had some really good elements. Specifically, the hematological ones: blood tribes and hunters.  Very cool. Hypothetically speaking, if my immediate family lived in Orleans, we would be split into different tribes and forced to barter for basic necessities. Good thing we live in the mid-Atlantic.  I just feel there was so much unrealized potential in this storyline. I also don’t think it was a successful dystopian. It can be argued Orleans is more of Southern Gothic set in the future, than Speculative or Dystopian.

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