Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Let me lay my lotería cards on the table: I read little horror, if any. I picked out Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel because I bought and published some of her earliest stories, back when Futurismic was still a going concern, and I was curious to see what she was capable of with a decade more experience under her belt; suffice to say it’s very clear to see why she’s lasted the course. The novel’s title makes it plain, even to a dilettante interloper, that there’s a direct connection to the earliest manifestations of the horror tradition—but I can’t tell you to what extent Mexican Gothic might be in dialogue with its generic predecessors, because I don’t have the necessary knowledge. As such, I will limit myself to a discussion of the book’s technique, affect and plot.

Let’s start with the latter: Noemí Taboada is a socialite in 1950s Mexico City, and her life of glamorous parties (and carefully distant dalliances with handsome but stupid young men) is interrupted by her father’s receipt of a letter from her cousin; Catalina recently married (unexpectedly, and against the family’s wishes and better judgement) and shipped out to El Triunfo, a faded former silvertown in the eastern state of Hidalgo, and has hardly been heard from since. The letter, full of high-gothic histrionics—cruelty, decay, poison, whispering voices in the night, the full works—suggests to Noemí’s father, already predisposed to disapproval of Catalina’s unsuitable husband Virgil Doyle, that she needs rescuing from her situation, or psychiatric attention, or some combination of the two: Catalina had a traumatic youth before coming to live with Noemí’s side of the family, after all, and has always been a bit flighty, her nose buried in literary Victoriana, a romantic in both the capitalised and lower-case senses of the term. Despite the horrors to come later in the novel, Noemí’s being dispatched on this mission by her stern yet doting father is perhaps the hardest event to swallow in terms of plausibility—but it’s done quickly, and no more than ten pages have passed before Noemí is en route to El Triunfo by train, with instructions to scope out the situation, and (if required) to persuade Virgil that he must either let Catalina see a shrink, or let her go entirely.

The Doyle family pile is the plainly-named High House, some way outside of El Triunfo proper, halfway up the mountain containing the mine that made the town’s (and the Doyles’s) much-diminished fortunes. High House and its cast of residents are as gothic as the title suggests they should be: this lot are, for the most part, monstrous and unpleasant from the get-go. Noemí, who starts confidently—as is her way—with the assumption that she’ll soon have her cousin out of there and onto a train back to the capital, discovers that things are (of course!) rather more complicated than the simple abusive-gold-digger-husband set-up that she and her father had assumed (though that is very much a part of the problem) and is soon entrapped in High House herself.

Now, I’ve never been much of one for deferring to the Spoiler Police, but I will in this case refrain from going deep into the spooky mechanics of the plot, which leavens its classic gothic hauntings and horrors with some scientific speculation and an (un)healthy dose of social psychology. I will say that it’s not a very violent or gory book, which I appreciated, and is perhaps all the more horrific (rather than thrilling or chilling) for that… and I will also note that the horror elements are used to explore, with no small degree of subtlety, the more mundane horrors of racism, colonialism and patriarchy. Mexican Gothic treats these themes with a sort of unflinching care, tracing the toxins without collapsing the veins of the plot. High House may be mostly lit by candles and oil lamps, but there’s a fair amount of gaslight in play, if you catch my drift; the entitled and not-always-passive aggressions of toxic masculinity, and the ways in which it warps and damages its protagonists as well as its victims, is poignantly portrayed, to the point that what might have been a far-too-fairytale ending instead feels both earned and redemptive.

It is telling, perhaps, that Moreno-Garcia chose the era of the post-war “economic miracle” as the temporal setting for the story—a period in which Mexico, like much of the rest of the world, was generally on the up in terms of social progress, particularly for women and those with indigenous (rather than Spanish) roots. Noemí fits both of those categories, and her privilege is contextualised with an appreciation of how much has changed, and how much is still to be done. As such, her distaste both for the obsolete patriarchal mores of the Doyles, and their interest in eugenic “science”, is informed by intellect and experience alike. (The redoubtable Clute would perhaps add something here about the ways in which the Doyles are Bound to the earth and their adopted home, both literally and figuratively, but I’ll leave that sort of theory to the experts.)

In terms of technique, while the gothic informs the imagery, atmosphere and plot, Moreno-Garcia mostly leaves the overwrought prose stylings out of it, writing instead from Noemí’s whipsmart sceptical POV as she figures out the form of the trap she’s wandered into. Furthermore, the way in which Moreno-Garcia displaces the classic gothic tropes to Central America, so as to expand and illuminate both the source genre and its idiosyncratic setting, is handled with deft and understated craft. Is it good horror? I’m really not the man to ask—but it’s a bloody good novel, that’s for sure.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.

Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 by M. John Harrison

Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, by M. John Harrison (Comma Press, 2020) 

Reviewed by Gwilym Eades

Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 (Comma Press)

Reading a book by Harrison is invariably, and this despite the highly variable nature of his output (horror, sci-fi, fantasy), like wandering through a landscape with no map. Or, if there is a map, it’s an Escher-like one, the circular waterfall endlessly recycling back into itself, ever elegant, and fringed with weird and wonderful vegetation and architecture. Or map-like objects; or symbols; or systems that constantly jump out of themselves and elude their own logic; or elude their own ‘logics,’ for they are multiple, ever-multiplying. 

A face is a map, a photograph part of an array in a system of objects that becomes a map; bodies ‘map’ into each other desultorily and then with vigour. If there is a philosophy that inheres in this remarkably coherent body of work, represented in Settling the World through a selection of short stories (at least one of which is derived from a larger work, namely Viriconium), perhaps it’s most closely allied with the base materialism of Bataille, and all that flows from that kind of commitment to constant and unrelenting transgression of limits of all kinds: transgression of boundaries between genres; of body/bodies, in collision; of thought itself. 

Surprising (to me) are the affiliations I see here with H.G. Wells’s haunted short stories, a continuity I had not expected to find between ‘original’ scientific romance (pre-pulp/Golden Age) and New Wave fantastics. This affiliation with Wells makes apparent just how English a writer Harrison is, evidenced by a constant nostalgia for summers past, evoked in their residual dusts in grey drizzling winters; it makes apparent too a certain London-centrism, especially in “The Incalling”, where Eastern (European) mysticism and magic become autochthonised to the Lower Camden/King’s Cross borderlands. Wells’s “The Door in the Wall” transmogrifies here into a mirror in a pub (“A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”). Everywhere, people are dying in different ways, fading into beautiful negatives of themselves next to weed-filled lots itemised, named and outlined in descriptive passages of luminous beauty, always-already faded photographs torn from magazines and books, bodies fetishized, traded, stacked and torn, thrown together and consulted in every conceivable way. Books cause madness, yet we are in one, therefore we are insane, like various friends of these protagonists: cultists, geniuses, climbers, the self-deluded.

In some mystic, agnostic equation, there is a link between degradation and the fantastic: here is the grim, dark, sea of the possible. No Marxian dialectic could hold for long the degraded landscape of particulars, the sea of shards waiting to cut the feet of the inevitable transgressor: the system-builders’ blood flows freely in such a sacrificial setting. The pre-injured, inured, will survive these cuttings, arranged like mocking, flowering, mirror-shards for the sick, the becoming-sick, and the sickness unto death that ends many a tale told here. These are simple observations of the overlays that hold sway across the maps that comprise Settling the World.

The sun looks down on all things equally, unblinking, and knows it will die; it, and all things, therefore, become negatives of themselves in time and thought. This is the overarching cognitive estrangement operating, at work, labouring behind the scenes, behind the clouds of these stories. The various novums that crop up, when they do, are all variations layered into the soil of that master-estrangement of being from itself and others. We behold the community of those without community; they are abject who inhabit these stories. The Climber himself is the one who holds the only possible hope: that of moving beyond himself to become one with the landscape. There is no novum there, in the climbing, it knows only itself, being and becoming on ice and rock (though “The Ice Monkey” too, ends in death and disfigurement).

“Cicisbeo,” a story about a husband, Tim, who spends a very long time converting a loft, could have been written by Philip Roth or Tom Waits: but that unlikely combination is all Harrison. It is also very late-style Harrison, and we see the evolution of his style through this selection. There is a maturity, but also a self-conscious concern and critique of the idea itself and its implications for expectations of the bourgeois male. The homeless, the hopeless, are still there, even centre stage, but the ability to keep at arm’s length comes to the fore. The surrealism of tunnels in the sky is long-lasting and that image will not soon fade like a sunset behind the air traffic circling Heathrow.

Continue reading “Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 by M. John Harrison”

The Evidence by Christopher Priest

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Christopher Priest’s sixteenth novel, his fifth in the last decade, returns to the uneasy setting of the Dream Archipelago, most recently traversed in 2016’s The Gradual. On the one hand, The Evidence is classic Priest with the full panoply of twins, stage magicians and the endless war between Glaund and Faiandland trundling on in the background. But, on the other, it’s a crime novel with several variants on the locked-room mystery and a particularly violent murder scene. Has Priest sold out to the demands of commercial genre writing or is he sarcastically deconstructing the format?

The Evidence

The novel begins with crime writer, Todd Fremde, on a train on Dearth Island heading to Dearth City, where he will be staying in the Dearth Plaza Hotel, in order to give a keynote lecture, to a conference organised by the University of Dearth Literary and Historical Society, on ‘The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime-Free Society’. Fremde has accepted the invitation against his better judgment, swayed by the promise of top cuisine, a suite at the hotel, and being driven around in a university car. Therefore, he makes it clear he only has time to give the lecture and then leave the next day. While it would no doubt be a mistake to conflate Fremde with Priest himself, the following fear seems heartfelt: ‘The prospect of prolonged and detailed academic discourse from theoreticians who knew little of the art and craft of writing filled me with dread’. Ouch! Suitably chastened, I shall try and rein in my well-known proclivities to quote large chunks of Derrida, Lacan or Agamben for the duration of this review.

Needless to say, the amenities on Dearth fail to match up to their billing but the real trouble arises from Fremde’s inability to adhere to the ‘Seignioral mutability regulations’ with the consequences that his watch stops, the electrical equipment in his room (not suite) takes on a life of his own, letters disappear from his emails and texts, and he incurs hefty fines for ‘electrical mutability abuse’ and a ‘Seignioral surcharge’ for ‘unauthorized horizontal prejudice’. Fortunately, he is able to offset some of the cost of these by cashing in the return half of his rail ticket and accepting the offer of a lift back across the island from a woman, Frejah Harsent, who attended his talk. But even this has its consequences as Harsent, who drives a gullwing roadster with a barely-concealed automatic weapon in the boot, turns out to be a semi-retired detective in the ‘Transgression Investigation Department, Dearth Seignioral Police’. Not only does she insist on telling him extensive details of a cold case that she was involved in because it will give him material for his writing but it also transpires that she is incredibly prejudiced against serfs leading to his blunt admission that he is a ‘citizen serf’, which provokes the following exchange:

‘I’m embarrassed – I assumed you were a professional, a vassal.’

‘That’s just your assumption,’ I said. ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m a writer. All writers are serfs.’

Subsequently, Fremde gets back to his home island of Salay Raba and over the following days all seems back to normal apart from the fact that there is no sign of his expenses and fee from the University of Dearth. But then, once more against his better judgement, he finds himself slowly dragged into the ongoing fallout of the cold case that Harsent insisted on describing to him and the attendant complications of twins, magicians and illusory perfect crimes. None of which is helped by the financial collapse and run on the banks, which threatens to destabilise the economy of the entire Archipelago that Fremde may have inadvertently triggered through his mutability transgressions. All of this is great fun, narrated with deadpan irony to characteristic understated comic effect; but with a marked political charge. 

The feudal class system of the Dream Archipelago has never been laid out so starkly as in the drop-down list of ‘social level’ options that Fremde accesses at one point in the proceedings: ‘Serf, Citizen Serf, Villein, Squire, Vassal, Corvée Provider, Cartage Provider, Demesne Landed, Knight, Manorial Landed, Baron, Seignior.’ Although, amusingly, magicians are categorised as a separate category of ‘Mountebank’. In The Evidence, this outdated class system is linked with finance as a manifestation of mutability, which is both a real and unreal process that happens or is thought to happen: ‘best understood as existing somewhere between quantum physics and psychology’. 

The unexpected appearance of the medieval term ‘Vassal’ in contemporary British usage presents an example of this kind of simultaneously real and unreal existence. It is used to express the concern of Brexiteers, such as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not to be reduced to the status of vassals of the European Union regardless of the fact that this is neither a likely outcome nor necessarily an undesirable one. That this kind of absurdity now constitutes the political reality of the UK is a reflection of the state of affairs described in a recent book, This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain (2020), by William Davies, Professor of Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. Davies posits that the mismatch between ever-expanding digital data and timebound analogue frames of meaning is generating ‘escalating opportunities for conflict over the nature of reality’. This strikes me as essentially the same phenomenon that Priest describes as mutability. Fremde might have been tasked with the seemingly paradoxical task of talking about the role of the modern crime novel in a crime-free society but Priest sets himself the even more difficult problem of writing about the relationship between illusion and reality in a world in which the distinction between them has collapsed. Somehow, by sleight of genre and time-honed skill, he achieves this, and order is restored at the end of The Evidence with revels ended as all is mended. The dream still works even as all falls apart around us.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction edited by Canavan and Robinson

Reviewed by Anthony Nanson. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In Rob Latham’s Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) the field of ecocriticism was conspicuous by its absence. That gap could have been nicely filled by Gerry Canavan’s Introduction to Green Planets, or indeed Latham’s own contribution to this book. Ecocriticism and SF may have been reluctant bed-mates, but in this book we see an explicit insemination of SF criticism with ecocritical thinking. Not only that, Canavan argues that science fiction itself is an ideal means of ecological critique. As Kim Stanley Robinson points out in the interview concluding this volume, the ecological crisis confronting the world is so complex, and so much about process unfolding in time, that it is better described in terms of story than of abstract concept.

Canavan structures his introduction and – the book’s three parts – using a set of categories borrowed from Samuel Delany. First, the contrasting utopias of New Jerusalem (the high-tech super city) and Arcadia (the rustic good life). Each of these inverts into a dystopia: respectively, the Brave New World and the Land of the Flies. In the interstices between these arise new postmodern categories: Junk City (slow-motion urban collapse), whose positive side (‘an ecstatic vision of improvisational recombinative urban chaos’) is unnamed (how about ‘Brexit’?); and the not formally named ‘ruined countryside’ (‘Edgeland’?), whose positive aspect is the Culture of the Afternoon (sunset shining through the smog). Transcending these sixteen categories is the Quiet Earth, where humankind is completely or almost completely absent.

Part 2, ‘Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies’, thus focuses on dystopian stories. Part 3, ‘Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon’, tends that way also. Eric C. Otto’s chapter there applies the concept of ‘critical dystopia’ (from Raffaela Baccolini and Tom Moylan’s Dark Horizons [2003]) to show how Paolo Bacigalupi exercises an ecotopian (ecologically utopian) desire through dystopian scenarios that create a tension between his characters, who become motivated to act differently but whose options are foreclosed by the structures of their world, and the reader in this world for whom change remains possible.

What really struck me is that most of the texts examined in the supposedly utopian Part 1, ‘Arcadias and New Jersusalems’, also incline towards dystopia. Christina Alt’s chapter on H.G. Wells compares the ecological awareness of The War of the Worlds with humankind’s ruthless extermination of undesired species in his notionally utopian novel Men Like Gods. Latham’s ‘Biotic Invasions: Ecological Imperialism in New Wave Science Fiction’ surveys a range of grim invasion stories. Michael Page’s study of Golden Age SF touches on some utopian texts when discussing the theme of ‘evolution’ but then returns firmly to dystopia with his second ecological theme of ‘apocalypse’. This leaves Gib Prettyman’s study of Le Guin as the only chapter, besides the Robinson interview, that wholeheartedly engages with the utopian imagination.

The notion of a kind of merging of SF and ecological critique is made tangible by two chapters about ‘science faction’, texts that are essentially works of speculative popular science but framed in a future narrative. I use the term in a broader sense than the narrow one in which Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman deploy it, to refer specifically to depictions of a world devoid of people. Equally ‘science faction’, I’d say, is Garrett Hardin’s Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle, the focus of Sabine Höhler’s chapter. Both these chapters run into a political dead end: Bellamy and Szeman’s because, as they conclude, a post-human world is a priori devoid of politics; Höhler’s because Hardin’s thought experiment leads to a neoliberal cum fascist conclusion that the resource limitations of Spaceship Earth necessitate a coercive survival of the fittest. In proposing a lifeboat exit strategy from this dilemma, Höhler appears to reject the premise that the Earth is a closed system and fall back on the dream of a destiny somewhere else – which both Canavan’s introduction and the interview with Robinson make clear is no solution to humankind’s ecological quandary.

For me, the most interesting line of thought arises in three chapters that, in different ways, engage with the idea of a change of consciousness through some concept of immersive ‘depth’. Melody Jue explains now, in Stanisław Lem’s Solaris and Greg Egan’s ‘Oceanic’, the metaphor of mysterious ocean depths is manipulated to suggest possibilities of reciprocal connection between the human and non-human. Timothy Morton’s essay on the film Avatar is a tour de force of postmodernist criticism, blithely drawing upon the likes of Kant, Spinoza, and Heidegger to explore an alluring void of reason in which we may find connection with all that is, only to leave us with a nightmarish image of alienation. Brilliant though it be, this kind of writing strikes me as more a performance of the critic’s cleverness than a useful contribution to our problems, whether ecological or existential. Contrast this with Prettyman’s clearly structured argument that the transcending of the ego facilitated by a spiritual path such as Daoism, to enter a broader field of connectedness, is instrumental to Le Guin’s strategic engagement with ‘the “enshrinement” of egocentrism that makes capitalism “the enemy of nature”’ (quoting Joel Kovel).

With the passing of Saint Ursula – I say that with tearful respect – this excellently produced book only reinforces my impression that Kim Stanley Robinson is out there on his own in applying the SF imagination to explore hopeful pathways into the future. We need more writers like him with the guts to step beyond the self-fulfilling prophecy of dystopia. As Canavan says, ‘The future has gone bad; we need a new one.’

(c) Anthony Nanson. All rights reserved.

Science Fiction edited by Dan Byrne-Smith

The MIT Press/Whitechapel Art Gallery (2020), 240 pp

Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler. This review first appeared in Vector 292.

There is a moment in an 1836 lecture at the Royal Institution when John Constable argues that “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” Various nineteenth century artists actually made science-fictional paintings — John Martin and Thomas Cole spring to mind — and groups of artists such as the Futurists, the Vorticists and the Surrealists embraced the ambiguities of modern technology in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1956, the “This is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery was opened by Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet and featured science-fictional imagery among its utopian and dystopian reactions to post-war, consumerist Britain. Among its many visitors was a new writer called J.G. Ballard. 

It is thus appropriate that this book on science-fiction art is published by the Whitechapel Art Gallery (in conjunction with MIT). As part of the Documents in Contemporary Art series — other titles include The Gothic, Beauty, Abstraction, The Sublime and Ruins— it brings together extracts from theoretical essays, academic journals, museum catalogues, interviews and written creative works, mainly produced in the last two decades. The book is arranged by theme rather than chronologically: “Estrangement”, “Future”, “Posthumanism” and “Ecology”, the first being driven by academic definitions of sf and the others by three broad areas of sf art. It is perhaps surprising that “Utopia”, “Dystopia”, “Technology” or “The City” are not sections, but it seems a reasonable breakdown. There is no editorial voice to situate each extract, beyond the bare fact of bibliography, and so most voices are gifted equal status, some contesting and others contradicting. Occasionally I longed for a map, or perhaps a clarification of whether, say, Afrofuturism starts in 1993 (South Atlantic Quarterly) or 1994 (that issue reprinted as Flame Wars) and I’m not clear whose typo M.R. Shiel was. And the volume assumes that you are familiar with the artists under discussion — a good many of them were names new to me, reflecting the eclectic range.

Across the volume there are some leading academic voices, such as Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles and Darko Suvin — represented by judicious extracts from central works — and writers such as Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Ted Chiang, Tom McCarthy and Kim Stanley Robinson. Atwood is given prominence as someone who has been accused of committing science fiction and who begs off the label, as what she writes isn’t what she thinks science fiction is, and she apologises that we may have taken offence at being misled into thinking it is science fiction. This is nicely countered in the interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, “Whenever science fiction gets interesting, then people try to give it another name. […] If its content becomes relevant, you call it cyberpunk, cli-fi, Anthropocene literature or dystopian fiction” (195). Nevertheless, Atwood places herself in the Vernian rather than the Wellsian tradition. But, of course, she isn’t producing art, in the sense of the other practitioners in the book.

The heart of the “Estrangement” section is an extract from Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, which situates science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (36). It is estrangement that is picked up on by the rest of the book — the sense of the familiar becoming unfamiliar and the unfamiliar becoming familiar, which we can surely see in the dialectical dance between the artistic simulation of, say, a landscape in paint or the reimagining of a location thanks to its depiction. Estrangement is a socio-political act, persuading us to think about the real world in a new way. The cognitive part of the equation — loosely, the science — is not really discussed in the extract, although Sherryl Vint picks it up in the next one. Suvin’s formulation allows us to see art in Pawel Althamer’s salutation to the new millennium in a Warsaw housing estate and then the travels of its inhabitants in gold spacesuits to Brasilia, Belgium, Mali and Oxfordshire. It empowers Afrofuturism and a huge amount of non-Western art by reframing European colonialism as an alien invasion and opens the space for new myths and fables. For example, Amna Malik discusses Ellen Gallagher’s Ichthyosaurus installation at the Freud Museum as “the basis of a foundation myth in which the sea becomes an incubator for the potentiality of the future” (79) (and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is mentioned in an interview with Ama Josephine Budge [215]). Meanwhile Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Dysfunctional Family, featuring an alien family dressed in batik cloth imported to Nigeria from Indonesia, was on display at the “Alien Nation” exhibition at the ICA, reappropriating fabrics sold to that country because it was perceived to be African.

Continue reading “Science Fiction edited by Dan Byrne-Smith”

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethin, also known as Winter where there is no sexual difference between people apart from a monthly period of kemmer. When the androgynous Gethenians meet in kemmer, hormonal secretions increase so that either male or female dominance is established in one and the partner takes on the other sexual role: 

Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be the male or the female and have no choice in the matter. (Otie Nim wrote that in the Orgoreyn region the use of hormone derivatives to establish a preferred sexuality is quite common; I haven’t seen this done in rural Karhide.). Once the sex is determined it cannot change … If the individual was in the female role and was impregnated, hormonal activity of course continues, and for the 8.4 month gestation period and the 6 to 8 month lactation period this individual remains female. … With the cessation of lactation the female … becomes once more a perfect androgyne. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more. (91)

Thus read the field notes of Ong Tot Oppong of the Hainish Ekumen on her initial observations concerning the sexual life of the Gethenians. These notes are in the possession of Genly Ai, who has openly come to Gethen as an ambassador from the Ekumen with the purpose of inviting the Gethenians to join the wider interstellar community. ‘The Question of Sex’ – as the chapter in which Ong’s notes appear is titled – is the aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness which has attracted most attention over the near half century since its original publication.

Front cover of the first edition, with art by the Dillons. Cover depicts two faces against an abstract background.

I was going to begin this review by arguing that ‘if Heinlein’s line “the door dilated” is often presented as an example of the cognitive estrangement of 1940s Golden Age SF, then Le Guin’s “The king was pregnant” is representative of a more profound late 1960s countercultural and feminist defamiliarisation’. But then I read China Miéville’s introduction to this new edition of Le Guin’s 1969 classic and discovered to my horror that not only does he make the exact same comparison, he also sums up its significance more effectively: ‘Heinlein renders one corridor strange: Le Guin reconfigures society’. For Miéville, the novel’s defamiliarisation of gender makes it unquestionably a precursor of the gender queerness and sexual fluidity of our twenty-first-century present. 

However, as he acknowledges, it was not always seen in such a radical light. Le Guin’s use of universal male pronouns to denote a society without a permanent sexual divide and therefore without a gender division, led to Joanna Russ, among others, criticising The Left Hand of Darkness for only containing men in practice. In In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), Sarah Lefanu argues that the lack of sexual difference means that there is no historical dialectic and that the novel’s popularity is due to it simultaneously offering women a retreat from conflict back to the pre-Oedipal imaginary order while offering men the opportunity to roam freely unconstrained by the difficulties that arise from sexual difference. Adam Roberts went as far as to say, in Science Fiction (2000), that The Left Hand of Darkness is remarkably non-binary as a novel, with an appealing spirituality but an unengaging storyline, and mainly dependent on the quality of its world-building to attract readers’ imaginative and emotional investment.

In fact, The Left Hand of Darkness has long had all the hallmarks of one of those novels which one feels guiltily ashamed of uninhibitedly enjoying in private while publicly pretending indifference in order to fit in with the apparent critical consensus. There is something about all that apparently non-existent narrative tension concerning the fate of Genly’s mission and his relationship with the mysterious and enigmatic King’s Ear, Estraven, that makes one need to keep turning the pages even on the umpteenth rereading. The plot is not negligible by any means. The central irony that the rather backward kingdom of Karhide does eventually turn out to be more important to Genly than the apparently more modern and democratic Orgoreyn, is the inspiration for Iain M. Banks’s Culture-related planetary romance, Inversions (1998). And, of course, the Culture is also a society in which it is possible for the mother of several children to become the father of several more.

Continue reading “The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin”

Review: The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Reviewed by Eugen Bacon. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

“Making things is a matter of hands and eyes. 

All my daughters are makers of things.”

If you’ve read Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s fiction, comprising Wizard of the Crow, Petals of Blood, The River Between—some curriculum in African literature, seen his plays, like The Black Hermit, or read his essays and memoirs, you know to expect the unexpected. This preps you for his black speculative fiction The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi, on the founding of the nine clans of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya. 

The Perfect Nine

The verse narrative borrows from the mythology of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi, the male and female forebearers created by the god of the mount, the giver supreme, the god of many names, also known as Mulungu, Unkulunku, Nyasai, Jok, Ngai, Yahweh, Allah. He/She is a unifying god, a being and nonbeing of distance and nearness, the here and there, the stars, moon and sun, the mother of the soil, water and wind. The giver grants Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi nine perfect daughters, and a tenth with a disability, and now the daughters have come of age. 

In this mightily feminist story that blends folklore, mythology, adventure and allegory, translated from its original Gĩkũyũ version titled Kenda Mũiyũru(2018), the daughters are self-sufficient women who till the land, build their own huts, are self-reliant yet united in mind, heart and kinship. 

There’s Wanjirũ, who put a curse on the hyena to smother greed. Wambũi, who rode a zebra to war, led an army to victory. Wanjikũ, who has a fierce love for personal freedom and self-reliance, and a healing power of peace. Wangũi, whose lullabies can dispel a war. Waithĩra, who resolves disputes with the wisdom of the mount. Njeri, whose power of glance is a quest for justice. Mwĩthaga, who can make rain. Wairimũ, who sculpts and invents life, can trap souls. Wangarĩ, whose courage of a leopard protects the powerless from the powerful. And Warigia, the unspoken tenth, born with a disability, but she charms animals, so much joy in her laughter, the whiteness of her teeth lights a path in the darkness, and her arrow never misses an eye.    

Suitors arrive from far afield, lured by the silhouettes of the daughters’ beauty in their dreams, girls in fantasies who lead them down valleys to rivers with song. The suitors perform their own songs and dances of their regions, some picked up on the way, and they’re willing to serve the trinity of life—birth, life, death; the trinity of day—morn, noon and evening; the trinity of time—yesterday, today, tomorrow. 

But with its caution on the lure of strangers, the cunning of ogres, the folly of greed and the ugliness of discord, the philosophical story tosses up challenges and much peril to the daughters and their ninety-nine suitors, until only the worthy remain. 

With its inclusion of no distinction between man or woman, its inspiration on care of the land, its adages on the power of nature, and knowing to listen to the dictates of the heart, The Perfect Nineis an accomplished work that’s deeply cultural. It platforms the importance of naming in African tradition, the place of ceremony and the heart of kinship, bonded by blood or marriage—as one groom says to Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi:

“I want to talk to you, my father and my mother,” he said, 

“For I cannot call you by any other name, given that

You received me and accepted me as your son.” 

In this lush chronicle on the genesis of Gĩkũyũ clans through valour, family, nature and nurture, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o shows how supremely he’s a leading literary African author and scholar, a recipient of twelve honorary doctorates, and a nominee for the Man Booker International Prize.

“Life has and has not a beginning.

Life has and has not an end.

The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning.”

Review: Born of the Sun: Adventures in our Solar System edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

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In Jack Williamson’s thought variant short story, ‘Born of the Sun’ (Astounding, March 1934), Sol – like possibly every other star in the universe – is a sentient being and the planets are its incubating eggs. Well, you can’t get much more “thought variant” than that! But since the Sun didn’t give birth by self-genesis, Mike Ashley has excluded it from his whistle-stop tour of the solar system. (I would have plumped for ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun’ – which is neither here, there, nor anywhere else.)

Ashley explains in his general introduction that the stories will deal with “the old solar system, beloved of writers of science fiction, before the space probes discovered what was really out there.” His Planetary Exclusion Order also applies to the Moon (but then he had placed Luna-set stories in the BL Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures anthology). Mars, however, could hardly have been left out of the batting order (see below). Following my usual form, I started by reading Ashley’s erudite* prologues before reading the actual stories.

*A redundant adjective, if ever there was one.

“So strap yourself in and prepare for a kaleidoscope of worlds!” (ibid.).

I’ll get the Golden Oldies – or at least Silveries – out of the way first. ‘Sunrise on Mercury’ (1957), by Robert Silverberg, takes place on the hot-side/twilight zone/cold-side innermost planet that we used to know and love so well. It’s one of his best early stories that never stops moving – or thinking. ‘Garden is the Void’ (1952) is Poul Anderson’s haunting exploration of an asteroid: “A green asteroid.” James Blish went over all Joycean again with ‘How Beautiful with Banners’ (1966), set on Titan, if not Saturn itself. Par example: “Feeling as naked as a peppermint soldier in his transparent film wrap, Dr. Ulla Hillstrom watched a flying cloak swirl away toward the black horizon with a certain consequent irony.” ‘Wait It Out’ (1968) is a marooned-on-Pluto story that shows how well Larry Niven could write hard science fictioon when he used to work at it. [And I, for one, will never accept Pluto as a ‘dwarf’ planet.] But my favourite classic story – and also my favourite story in the whole book – is Clifford Simak’s ‘Desertion’ (1944).

‘Desertion’ (1944). Set on and around Jupiter, it became an integral part of the fix-up novel City (1952) and inspired a crucial plot device in Avatar (watch and compare). The last four understated lines of this story never fail to move me. I envy anyone reading them for the first time.

As usual with Mike Ashley, however, it’s the little-known or even unknown stories by ditto authors that make these BL anthologies so worthwhile. Leslie F. Stone (1905-1991) was one of the “pioneer women” contributors to the dawn-age sf pulp magazines. She set ‘The Hell Planet’ (1932) on the “real” Vulcan, once thought to lie between Mercury and the Sun. Background reading: The Hunt for Vulcan (2015), by Thomas Levenson. ‘Foundling on Venus’ (1954) by John and Dorothy De Courcy has a stinging twist in the tale. John Ashcroft (1936-1997) does Mars proud with ‘The Lonely Path’ (1961). ‘Where No Man Walks’ (1952), by E. R. James (1920-2012), about mining for industrial diamonds on the “surface” of Uranus, could well have been expanded to novella, or even novel-length. It’s the strongest story in the book, in my opinion, after ‘Desertion’. By the same token, ‘A Baby on Neptune’, a collaboration between Claire Winger Harris (1891-1968) and Miles J. Breuer (1889-1945) is by far the worst story in the book. “Ye Gods!” shouted Kuwamoto. “Just at the crucial moment, like a cheap novel serial! I suppose all we can do is nothing, and Elzar’s child has been devoured by the filthy beast.”

It just remains for me to say that Born of the Sun is yet another excellent theme anthology edited by Mike Ashley for the British Library. Buy it! Read it! Keep it!

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora by [Zelda Knight, Marian Denise Moore, Eugen Bacon, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Michael Boatman, Odida Nyabundi, Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald]

Reviewed by Fiona Moore

This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

It’s become almost a cliché of conversations in sf circles: someone says that they would love to read more works by authors from non-Western, non-White, and/or postcolonial origins, but, they add, “I don’t really know where to start.” While the recent rise to prominence of African and African-diaspora authors like NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor and Tade Thompson has been welcome, potential readers might still wonder where to look for writers in other sub-genres of sf, such as horror, Weird fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction. 

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora provides a suitable answer to this question, being a sampler of a diverse range of stories by established African and African Diaspora authors, covering a startling range of genres that provides something for everyone. At the same time, however, there is plenty for those with a good understanding of Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism to appreciate.

All the stories were, however, at the very least interesting and in most cases very enjoyable to read. Some fit comfortably within familiar sf categorisations. “Trickin’”, by Nicole Givens Kurtz, is a Hallowe’en-set horror piece which develops both the vampire and demonic-possession subgenres. “Sleep, Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Okungbowa Davies is also on the conventional horror spectrum, a Lagos-set story involving necromancy and revenant corpses to explore family relationships.  On the science fiction side, “Red_bati” by Dilman Dila, about a former robot pet now repurposed as a mining robot after the death of its human owner, fits into the growing genre of stories exploring the morality of creating AI for human use; this example does a good job of handling the balance between making the AI sympathetic and not obscuring his non-human mindset.

Other stories engage more directly with colonialism and postcolonialism. “A Maji Maji Chronicle” by Eugen Bacon is a fantasy about a mage who meddles with African colonial history, exploring questions about power, corruption and legitimate leadership. “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” by Rafeeat Aliyu is a mixed genre SF/fantasy, giving us a wizard from Earth tracking a magical object to an alien society and retrieving it with the aid of a half-human-half-alien woman. The idea of magic-as-science, a feature of much postcolonial sf including that from Africa and its diaspora, arises both as an embracing of the indigenous logics dismissed as superstition in a colonial context, and a challenge to the idea of “Western” science as hegemonic and objective. Here, it is counterpointed by the narrative of a mixed species character finding an escape from her oppressive birth society. 

“The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh is a genuinely terrifying horror fantasy about an Igbo woman in the 1950s in an abusive marriage; the best horror for me is always that which works as a metaphor for real-life issues, and the way in which the protagonist struggles against not just her husband and his family but the patriarchy of 1950s Nigeria in general is both reflected and amplified by the supernatural terrors she encounters (and sometimes brings into being herself). Mame Bougouma Diene’s “The Satellite Charmer” engages directly with Chinese neo-colonial activities in Africa, the background involves two Chinese mining companies using satellite technology for resource extraction in Senegal, our foreground is the life of one man, Ibrahima, affected by the satellites in unexpected ways and how he, and they, converge to an explosive meeting.

History, and more specifically the loss of (and recovery of) history, also emerges as a key theme. “A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore is a near-future hard-science story whose protagonist is an American project manager tasked with evaluating (and possibly cancelling) a project meant to enable the transfer of human memory for profit; at the same time, we have the counter-narrative of the protagonist’s father attempting to trace the family history, thwarted by the invisibility of Black, enslaved and working-class people. The end result explores the meaning of individual and social memory not just in the USA, but any postcolonial country. “Emily,” also by Marian Denise Moore, is the shortest piece in the book, a poem starting with a historical advertisement for the return of an escaped enslaved girl and imagining different parallel futures for her, picking up on the theme of lost history in Moore’s earlier piece for the volume. “Thresher of Men” by Michael Boatman is a deeply satisfying revenge narrative: as a goddess takes vengeance on the White residents of an American town for past atrocities, we see the hidden history of the seemingly idyllic community emerge, beginning with a recent police shooting of a young Black man but going deeper into the past as the story unfolds, revealing the murder as one horror in a long chain of atrocities extending back decades, if not centuries.

Finally, some stories in this collection cross genres or defy classification. “Convergence In Chorus Architecture” by Dare Segun Falowo is a strange and surreal Weird fiction piece involving quests, boneships, human-arthropod fusions; the prose is beautiful and haunting and the imagery lingers. “Clanfall: Death of Kings” by Odida Nyabundi is a post-human post-apocalyptic adventure story, which reads like the setup to what could be a very interesting series, and one hopes the author develops this universe further. Finally, “Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by volume coeditor Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald tells the story of a society undone by its own essentialism; as the narrative twists and turns unexpectedly, so the story shifts genre, beginning as an epic heroic fantasy, before shifting into a postapocalyptic story with echoes of The Chrysalids, and shifting again into another divine revenge narrative.

Dominion is a worthy addition to volumes like Walking the Clouds and So Long Been Dreaming which serve as introductions to postcolonial and indigenous science fictions and fantasies. The interesting range of stories, genres and themes provides a clear guideline for people looking for new work by African and African Diaspora writers in their favourite subgenres. However, the exploration and development of themes of colonialism, history, and memory, as well as the re-interpretation of colonialist sf tropes such as vampires and AI through African and/or Afrofuturist lenses, means that the volume also contributes to the ongoing dialogue on decolonising science fiction. 

Review: Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture

Edwina Attlee, Maria Smith, and Phineas Harper, eds.  Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture (London: The Architecture Foundation and Oslo Architecture Triennale, 2019)

Reviewed by Carl Abbott

Cover of Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow's Architecture. Stairs and columns against a backdrop of mountains, under a huge sun or moon, everything soaked in bloody light

To understand Gross Ideas, start with the Oslo Architecture Triennale to which this book is a companion. The Triennale is “a member organization that unites the major architecture and urban planning networks in Norway” for conversations and public programs about the role of architecture in society. Participants and supporters include national associations of design professionals, architecture schools, Norwegian government agencies, and international architecture firms with Norwegian roots. The 2019 Triennale in the fall of 2019, was the seventh iteration.

Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character …

The book itself is a miscellany of contributions that is more a curated exhibit in verbal form than a tightly edited collection, a characterization that I suspect the curator-editors would find quite acceptable. Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character. Some of these latter are stories that could easily find homes in science fiction magazines. Others range from Will Self’s takeoff on Invisible Cities to Lesley Lokko’s essay on women and transnational remittances that includes a fictional vignette, a short factual summary, and scholarly endnotes (it is quite effective). 

Architects have long delighted to imagine grand buildings and building schemes—Arturo Soria y Mata’s Ciudad Lineal, the arcologies of Paolo Soleri, Walking City and other thought experiments of the Archigram group, a linear supercity from Michael Graves, the mile-high skyscraper of Frank Lloyd Wright (even Burj Khalifa gets only halfway there). Science fiction has appropriated the taste for the grandiose from Trantor and Coruscant to countless artists’ depictions of imagined urban futures full of soaring towers in shimmering color. 

What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent …

There is no such here. What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent. Instead we get one story in which the largest building is a village house (Sophie Mackintosh, “Placation”), a second set in a caricature of a dusty, unchanging town of the old American Southwest (Joel Blackledge, “Fountainwood”), and another in derelict and abandoned Edinburgh (Camilla Grudova, “Deliberate Ruins’). The only story to center a single building uses an unfinished and abandoned Persian Gulf skyscraper (Deepak Unnikrishnan, “Cat”). The other entry in which architecture is the explicit focus is the graphic narrative “Exile’s Letter” by Mill + Jones, which chronicles efforts to build in a low-technology future (temple, town, giant fishing pier) that are laid low by fire and flood and end with the triumph of unbuilding in a sort of Nature-driven  version of the Tower of Babel. 

Some of the entries posit future engineering rather than architecture—a distinction that the curators and the Triennale folks would likely disregard anyway. For example, Robin Nicholson projects the green retrofitting of London in 2039. I had the most fun with “The Aqueduct,” which presents a scenario for replacing Britain’s rail and road transportation with a set of canals. It is a fascinating think-piece that painlessly introduces elementary physics to extrapolate from Britain’s current restored canals. If he hasn’t, author Steve Webb should look up Railroads and American Economic Growth by my old graduate professor Robert Fogel, which includes a long counterfactual to test whether the United States might have had the same robust economic growth had it invested in canals and river improvements rather than railroads in the nineteenth century.  

As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes …

The contributors took to heart the theme of the 2019 Triennale—“Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth.” Some stories imagine the built world in decay (Grudova, Unnikrishnan), others the natural world actively triumphant (Mackintosh).  Lev Bratishenko, “You Wanted This,” reports a future United Nations conference at which national representatives offer their own favored ways to drastically reduce the world population—the Russians want to use thermonuclear bombs, the Japanese want to weaponize the Internet of Things, the Americans want to drug everyone to euphoric death (cue up Serenity). One of the most powerful stories is Rachel Armstrong’s “Bittersweet Building.” A new architecture graduate in desperate need of a job catches on with a Norwegian firm that is trying to incorporate bacteria as part of a building’s metabolism (waste into clean water, heat, oxygen). As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes into their own complex world and finally merging fully into the “metabolic community of the landscape.” It is both a chilling and a comforting variation on the natural process of bodily decay. For the theme of degrowth, score a big one for the Earth.

Having considered the “architecture” half of “tales of tomorrow’s architecture,” what about the “tales” part? To no surprise, the pieces run a wide span from interesting but undramatic speculation to engaging story. For an example from the didactic side, Edward Davey, “Oli Away,” uses the mechanism of a report on a gap year journey to explicate some favored energy and transportation options. The entries by Nicholson, Bratishenko, and Webb are additional examples of scenario-building rather than storytelling. They have a lot of information without much surrounding story, which is not to say that we should not think about the ideas they present. After all, nobody read Looking Backward for its compelling characters and plot, but it had enormous influence. 

Several of the contributions that are strong as stories are, not surprisingly, by people with lots of writing experience who know how to create engaging characters. For many Vector readers, the biggest name in the collection is Cory Dotorow, who contributes an interesting variation on his Disneyland obsession with “Materiality.”  He posits a theme park in which high school classes spend a week inhabiting reconstructed towns from different eras. Think Main Street USA meets the living displays of colonial “savages” found at early twentieth century world’s fairs (also see the living diorama in Colson Whitehead’s fantastic alternative view of American history in The Underground Railroad). The theme park contrasts with a present in which recycling and three-dimensional printed make the objects of everyday life ephemeral if not immaterial. Doctorow’s teenaged protagonist indirectly confronts the lasting imprint that seriously stupid Old Timey People left on the landscape by considering whether his favorite old tee shirt is still cool (it is). 

… architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems.

Maria Smith in “Lay Low” uses the familiar frame of singles gossiping in a bar to introduce a society of scarcity in which everyone has monetized allowances for necessities like water, food, and electricity.  Her variation on a familiar science fiction future is a new way to get ahead on your budget—perhaps—by going into hibernation for a few months to lower your consumption levels and build up points. The women in the bar, who are just learning about the new option, don’t think that monetizing unconsciousness is going to go well.

Jo Lindsay Walton contributed the longest, most complex, and perhaps most readable story (no, there was collusion with your book review editor).  “In Arms” is cleverly constructed with two parallel threads—a woman waiting for a date to show up and an ecoterrorist launching an operation—that slowly grow more complex and intertwine in unexpected ways. Radical changes in building styles are slipped in as background, including the cool idea that rising seas have forced the seat of British government to shift to a mobile seastead platform nicknamed Wetminster.  

Without the subtitle and the wraparound material describing the Triennale, someone who casually reads through Gross Ideas would think it is about economic transition and “degrowth” in general, with architecture one of many avenues of exploration. The overall message is that architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems. Some contributors see a complete devolution to a nonindustrial future, others a society of scarcity, and still others an adapting world. Tomorrow’s architecture, the book suggests, will be valuable to the extent that it is subordinated not just to social needs—an architectural truism, if not always heeded—but rather to fundamental institutional and social transformation. 

Carl Abbott is author of The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West, The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sunbelt Cities, and Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis.