First-Class Flights: The Class Politics of Labour and Flight in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Elfin Stories

By Tam J Moules

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1977 short story collection, is one of her oddest and most fantastical works, the culmination of “a progressive shifting away from realism toward the explicitly anti mimetic modes of allegory and fable” (Castle, 1993), a departure which “seemed calculated to irritate and confuse a great many readers.” (Harman, 2015, p. 312) The tales were written over a period of several years, originally published separately in the New Yorker, before being published as a collection about a year before Townsend Warner’s death in 1978. They are loosely satires of class systems and aristocracy, as Harman describes: “She used Elfindom as a mirror to society, although all the satire in her elfin stories is very casually arrived at; she seems too uninterested in human dealings to aim at them with any care” (Harman, 2015, p. 313). Elfin (or fairy, the terms are often used interchangeably by both author and critics) society is portrayed as deeply decayed and corrupt, with a rigid class structure and archaic rituals dependent primarily on the whims of the powerful, disintegrating under the weight of their own isolationism and greed, and in opposition to the mortals of the tales, who are “almost universally working class”. (Priest, 2010)

There are two main layers to the class division in these stories. The most prominent is the division within Elfin society, between “flying servants [and] strolling gentry” (p.93). The division between Elfin and human society is also stratified along class lines, with the aforementioned working class mortals forming the main part of the human characters. The intersections between both of these stratifications will serve as the basis for my exploration of Warner’s treatment of class.

Claire Harman, in her 1989 biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner, describes the Elfins as “anarchic [and] amoral”. Harman is likely using ‘anarchic’ in the colloquial sense, to mean ‘chaotic’, however, in contrast to the literal sense of the word, we see that Elfin society is deeply hierarchical, and the power of flight, through the possession and usage of wings, is frequently employed as a symbol of the delineation of those hierarchies. It’s a physical power, an inherited characteristic, a visual marker to differentiate between Elfins and those they consider to be their human inferiors. It serves as a marker of the differences between Elfins and humans, a demonstration of Elfin superiority that is tied in with human religious symbolism. It also serves as a class marker within Elfin society, between the working classes who must rely on flight for labour and transport, and the upper classes who consider it beneath their dignity. We are told quite flatly of the theoretically simple social position of flight: Elfins “fly or don’t fly according to their station in life”, and the aristocrats “marked their social standing by scorning to use their wings” (p. 66). The stories frequently concern themselves with instances in which these social rules are transgressed.

I am resisting the impulse here to taxonomise every symbolic function of the power of flight in these stories, to fit them all into some universal system, since this runs counter to the playfully and deliberately contradictory nature of these stories. Partly this is due to their being written over a long period of time, changing style and tone to suit the needs of particular stories, and partly it is an artefact of the stories’ function as social satires. Though some critics have discussed her “attempt to construct a typology of fairies” (Simons in Davies & Malcolm eds. 2006), I would disagree that she makes any such attempt. It is possible to read a typology into the book, but I’d argue that this requires flattening a lot of the apparent contradictions. Flight is forbidden, except when it’s not. Contact with humans is forbidden, except when it’s not. Religion is irrelevant to them, except when it’s not. She sets out a theoretical typology, then throughout the collection she explores the complications and violations and contradictions of this typology. It might be more accurate to say that the book is a typology of contradictions, and in laying out the Elfin contradictions we are led to consider the human ones.

In writing about Warner’s treatment of animals in her fiction, Mary Sanders Pollock discusses Warner’s project to “suggest ways that Marxist thinking might permeate and complicate the boundaries […] between the “human” and the other lively beings” (2015), which I would suggest applies equally to her treatment of the Elfins as it does to her treatment of animals. We see a convergence of these two concepts in the tale ‘The Mortal Milk’, which concerns “the Royal Pack of Werewolves” (p. 68) in the Court of Brocéliande as they sicken and die. They are described as both men and beasts, as both unnatural and mortal, as a liminal state between sapient and animal, and their treatment mirrors the treatment of the human children raised in Elfin. Permeability is a recurrent symbol in these stories, be it the permeable geographical boundaries between the two worlds, the permeable species boundaries between humans and Elfins, or the resisted permeability of class boundaries.

Continue reading “First-Class Flights: The Class Politics of Labour and Flight in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Elfin Stories”

Make Shift

Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future. Edited by Gideon Lichfield. The MIT Press, 2021.

Reviewed by Ksenia Shcherbino

In my head, collections of short stories are proof of the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics – once an experiment with different possible outcomes is performed, all outcomes are obtained, each in a different newly created world. To a certain extent, this is the starting point for the Twelve Tomorrows project – an annual anthology of science fiction short stories, published by MIT Technology Review – but unlike in physical experiments, it allows us to observe all of the alternative worlds. Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future is the 2021 addition to this project, and it appeared in the most difficult times. The world, having gone through all types of lockdowns, quarantines, social restrictions, furlough policies, has irrevocably changed, and eleven contributors to the book led by the editor Gideon Lichfield are trying to chart out those changes into newly opened futures. 

It’s a great challenge to prepare such a collection of short stories still in the midst of the pandemic (May 2021). It takes the honed instinct of a veteran of MIT Technology Review and, currently, WIRED editor to make sure that these stories still ring pitch-perfectly a year later. When Lichfield wrote in the preface how coronavirus “has ripped open a gaping hole in [capitalist liberal democracy] that may never be closed up,” he could not have possibly known that a year later Europe would be plunged into a war, and that the future would seem even darker, even more dystopian than through the lens of the pandemic alone. Now the world is once again lost in dis-es and mis-es of discord, displacement, dysfunction, misunderstanding, mistreatment and misery, and we struggle to see our place in it.

Nonetheless, the authors gathered under this cover are not new to imagining futures that embody resistance, resilience and hope. They are, in Lichfield’s words, “known for their ability to imagine a plausible future in realistic detail,” and they carve out new possibilities from the minutest details of our everyday life. Professional futurists, skilled world-builders and word-weavers, the volume’s writers are also journalists, sociologists, biotech consultants, activists, lawyers – they both shape the world, and care for the future with an intensity that burns through their words. More than once I finished reading a story in this collection with my eyes wet and my heart beating fast – a testament that the writing is wholehearted, earnest, relevant. It strikes a fighting chord with me despite the fact that there are no wars in these narratives, no large acts of heroism or self-sacrifice. Through the stories of ordinary people, in undramatic settings, they give you hope that, quoting Lichfield again, “the new normal, though forged in pain and suffering, could be a healthier, more robust, and in some ways more creative society.” They give you hope that your life matters. 

“No one is more important than you are,” says Chela in Malka Older’s “Interviews of Importance.” Chela works as operator for a new digital technology that records the memories of the elderly. Her job is to talk to them about their past. But what Chela wants most is to talk to her own mother, and to learn the story she never shared. Chela’s clients love talking to her, she is good at her job, yet somehow she can’t find the right words for the one person who is so important to her. She is afraid that she will never know her mother’s life story, and “there is a difference between knowing the outlines and understanding why things had happened and what it felt like.” COVID had an enormous impact on all emotional bonds that hold us together. Due to travel restrictions, I haven’t seen my mother for over two years now. I know how it feels – the slow erosion of intimacy, the blinding worry that you will be too late to say the right words. 

Family relationships are in the centre of Indrapramit Das’s “A Necessary Being,” a beautiful and sad story about bonding and parting. Our ruined world is being slowly tended back to life by giant omnipotent robots, doing all the menial tasks to make the planet livable again. They are operated by people who inhabit their mechanical bodies and give up on all human connection. But one day one of the operators rescues a little girl. She has nowhere to go, so he adopts her and lets her live with him inside the machine and pilot it. Together they become “heart” and “soul” of the robot. But is this life too much or not enough for a human child? The fragile ecosystem of father-daughter relationship unfurls against the background of the recovering world, and raises questions about gratitude, loyalty and our future survival. 

Stories like this are read through empathy and contemplation instead of adrenaline, as befits a collection of stories about futures after pandemics. Little happens in terms of the plot, or even character development. Yet they can still connect emotionally, and they are a treasure trove of inspirational ideas for the tech-savvy reader. The quadratic voting system in Karl Schroeder’s Sherlockian “The Price of Attention” is presumably unhackable and ensures fair votes by making people invest in the issues that matter the most to them; the system evolved out of the same mechanisms as COVID track-and-trace system. The Nene Huddle network in Ken Liu’s palimpsestic “Jaunt” allows people to establish a secure, yet anonymous and hard-to-trace connection with a telepresence robot and enables virtual travel in a world where conventional travel is extinct, and governments try to lock down and control population in the name of the common good. Such innovations are explained in exhaustive and plausible detail, which gives the stories a certain solidity, while serving as a reminder for us to pay attention to science and technology developments, spurred on by pandemic.

Some of the stories ring hilariously – and dangerously – true to our early pandemic experiences. Confusion, anger, and victimization were part of our initial reaction to COVID, and they are not easy to dispense with. Madeline Ashby’s “Patriotic Canadians Will Not Hoard Food!” recall empty shelves in London supermarkets during the first lockdown and anti-mask riots, as in her post-pandemic Canada, a farmer participates in a government ration exchange program and is persecuted by her neighbours for putting disposable masks on her scarecrows. Lockdowns gave us a chance to rediscover our creative side – and D.A. Xiaolin Spires picks up on this surge of DYI and innovation. In her “Mixology For Humanity’s Sake” the main protagonist is a sake brewer who helps with vaccination delivery – a story that acquires new layers of meaning once you remember the volunteers who were part of the NHS vaccination campaign. Ken Liu’s story with its xenophobic surveillance-obsessed president Bombeo and his anti-immigration policies holds a distorted mirror to both Priti Patel’s and Donald Trump’s agendas, while Adrian Hon’s “Little Kowloon” addresses the challenges faced by Hong Kongers settling in the UK after the 2021 Chinese crackdown on civil rights. Yet through those dark glimpses of our reality shines an unshakeable belief in humanity – in our ability to overcome our troubles without losing our feelings of compassion. It does not matter that our future may not literally resemble the worlds portrayed in Make Shift, since there’s one thing that the collection aptly and truthfully demonstrates: human beings are not neat pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We never fully fit into any imaginary world, but are constantly adjusting and looking for solutions: political, technological, and above all emotional. 

In one sense, the opening conversation between Wade Roush (a technology journalist and editor of the 2018 edition of Twelve Tomorrows) and Ytasha L. Womack (author, filmmaker and Afrofuturist scholar) stands apart yet defines the tone of the book. Not only does it put this quantum multi-world experiment into the context of racial and social injustice, it also brings out hope for rebuilding from within, or, using Womack’s apt description, for “collective acknowledgement of life.” And this is probably the book’s most important message.

Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China

By Ksenia Shcherbino

It is as human to move from one place to another in search of a better life, as it is to divide the world into categories of “us” and “them.” However, there is no universal definition of a ‘migrant’. Migrants are not inherently vulnerable. However, they often find themselves marginalized in the host country and are perceived by some to threaten national identity, economy, social cohesion and cultural norms. As Saskia Bonjour and Sebastien Chouvin warn us, “discourses on migration, integration and citizenship are inevitably classed, because representations of Self and Other are inevitably classed [1]”. Practices of inclusion/exclusion are based on power dynamics which are rarely fair and more often than not based on a set of prejudices, including racial prejudices that perpetuate inequality and can lock the families in the boundaries of their ‘migrant’ status for generations. Hence, children of ‘migrants’ are continued to be seen by some members of society as migrants as well despite being born in the country or having lived there for most of their lives, thus reinforcing cultural alienation and inequality. Further, the continuity of colonialist discourse fuels dehumanisation of migrants. Read through this lens of colonialism, Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China offers a unique experience of sieving through the questions of migration, acceptance, domination and hybridity in the body of a chimera, a creature of fantasy. The book keeps asking the readers to re-evaluate the ideas of power and possession, speech and silence. Who colonised who, are humans nothing but the former beasts who have conquered the land and re-written its history? Who has the right of speech? Is silence a way of telling a story by the marginalised (beasts)? The entwined story of memory and oblivion for monsters and humans in Strange Beasts of China turns the narrative into a battlefield of falsifiable identities and historical assumptions. “This vast city, the beasts that come and go, all of this, is a secret,” muses Yan Ge’s narrator. “No one knows why they come or why they go, why they meet or why they leave. These are all enormous, distant mysteries [2]”. Yan Ge’s Yong’an is a postcolonial space where the story of subjugation of the beasts, or the struggle for de/re-territorialisation is already part of history, and the question that haunts both humans and beasts is the same that haunts in our day and time: how the interdependence of colonisers and the colonised has shaped – and continues shaping – our understanding of the world [3].

Continue reading “Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China”

Africanfuturism: An Anthology

Africanfuturism: An Anthology edited by Wole Talabi, Brittle Paper, 2020

Includes stories by Nnedi Okorafor, T.L. Huchu, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Mame Bougouma Diene, Mazi Nwonwu, and Derek Lubangakene.

Reviewed by Alexander Buckley

With a short introduction to African science fiction by Wole Talabi, himself a Nommo Award winning writer, Africanfuturism: An Anthology contains eight stories and boundless insights into what Africanfuturism actually is, what it should look and read like. The anthology is freely available from Brittle Paper, a literary magazine established in 2010 that champions upcoming African artists and writers. The stories invite the reader to delve into imaginative futures of African societies, all of them conjuring up a range of compelling ideas, some offering novel interpretations of dystopian ways of living. 

The anthology opens strong with a short, hospitable story by T.L. Huchu, a Zimbabwean writer, known for his debut novel The Hairdresser of Harare (2010) and his many award-nominated short stories. Huchu’s “Egoli”, written in the second person, details the life of an aged Shona woman living between the past and the future in her small village; her grandson is away working as a miner in space, meanwhile, this woman uses a smartphone and finds solace in the BBC World Service on the radio. The nostalgic inspection into the past is warm and balmy, contrasted with the introspective world of tomorrow that’s slowly encroaching, attempting to sever this woman from the life she tirelessly tries to hold on to. It’s beautiful. The writing is neat and immerses the reader in this woman’s life that seems so lonely and distant from everything around her. It’s one of the most interesting and developed stories in the anthology and is a fantastic introduction for anyone interested in Africanfuturism.


The second story is “Sunrise” by Nnedi Okorafor, whose definition of Africanfuturism, a term she coined, is featured at the beginning of the anthology. Okorafor’s “Sunrise begins with a famous Nigerian-American science fiction writer being harassed while trying to board a flight with her sister. It then shifts into a narrative about the erratic uncontrollable nature of the Artificial Intelligence on her phone and the spoilt visit to her uncle’s house. The story doesn’t seem to know which way it wants to go, and the writing doesn’t help the confused nature of the storyline. The part at the beginning, about Nnedi’s self-insert being harassed by ‘Ian Scott’ who struggles to pronounce her name correctly is strong enough to be a standalone story. Everything afterwards felt tacked on and a little needless.

Ugandan filmmaker and science fiction writer Dilman Dila’s “Yat Madit” tells the story of Amaro, whose ex-president father is released from prison. Her father visits his smart, tech savant daughter to seek advice about using the voter’s online avatars to get himself re-elected. Yat Madit is the hardware that hosts everyone’s avatar and fosters interconnectedness, the nature of which remains enigmatic. The worldbuilding is very compelling, inspiring many questions about what Yat Madit is and how it works. Yat Madit means ‘a big tree.’ There are hints that a stormy family drama is buried underneath the narrative layer, but it’s unable to emerge through the text. The father tries ludic ways to reconcile with Amaro, but the back-and-forth trial does not suffice to banish the shadow of his criminal past. The writing struggles to support the plausibility of attempts to resolve the emotional conflict between Amaro and her father. “Yat Madit”’s main strength is its science fiction novum and worldbuilding. There’s a whole future happening within the story and it would have been great to explore more of the history of the avatars. This is a case where the science-fictional ideas are more interesting and involving than the emotional story they are embedded in.  This is unfortunate because the characters want to do so much and be given the same treatment as the science that is being foretold. 

Mazi Chiagozie Nwonwu is co-founder of Omenana, an essential Nigerian-produced magazine dedicated to speculative fiction from Africa and the African diaspora. Nwonwu’s “Rainmaker” is about a young boy named Bama who must perform a Raindance to bring rain to the dry, dusty planet of Arid. “Rainmaker” is a fun, short adventure story with a simple premise. It begins with an exciting encounter with ‘dust devils’ as Bama and his friend Katma are heading to school. From there, the story doesn’t let go of its sense of adventure and vision. On Arid, it’s believed that anyone who stands up to a dust devil is granted a wish. The story is wholesome and earnest. A journey on this strange arid planet is filled with bright characters and an involving mythos. Mazi Nwonwu’s writing is clear and hospitable and he serves the planet and its inhabitants to us like a tasty, filling meal. 

Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry and architectural criticism. Her work is featured in The Best of World SF (2021) edited by Lavie Tidhar, and appeared in Strange Horizons and the quarterly British magazine Wasafiri. Her story “Behind Our Irises” details the day in the life of a graphic designer working for a depressing corporate business to keep her life afloat after years of unemployment. This sinister company installs new technology into their employees, fitting holes into the back of their necks, draining them of their freedoms and exploiting them for profit. Although the company is based in and runs throughout Africa, one of the higher-ups is a “European man with a balding hairline, stocky fingers and a certain kind of confidence that intimidated me.” The various themes explored throughout the story are subtle and may not be so apparent on a first reading. Towards the end, the protagonist, against her will and quite suddenly, is forced to undergo ‘maintenance’ work on her ‘ports’. She is approached by “a man in blue coveralls that looked like a cross between a doctor and mechanic.” She tries to evade the procedure but finds she cannot move. She can’t even yell for help, and the man in blue coveralls nonchalantly takes what he came for then lets her go. This dystopian, sad, almost borderline horror short is well made and thought out. This story is a great addition to the anthology, reflecting on emerging issues in labour relationships between workers and corporations. 

Derek Lubangakene, whose work has appeared in Omenana and Strange Horizons, brings “Fort Kwame” to the anthology, named after the orbital city that suffers the consequences of a failed rebellion. Its protagonist, Jabari Asalur, “acknowledged his dread.” Fort Kwame, and the inhabitable planet it floats above, is a deep and detailed world, full of exciting science-fictional ideas and entertaining characters. Lubangakene’s exploration of this futuristic orbital city is quite an adventure. The workings of Jabari’s “thermskin” are particularly well imagined and tickle a certain sci-fi itch. “Fort Kwame” fits perfectly into the anthology. 

On her website, Rafeeat Aliyu’s describes “Fruit of the Calabash” as being “something I initially dreamed of, I recall hastily jotting down memories of the creepy dream before it faded”. In the story, Maseo fertilizes artificial wombs in her lab. The development of a fetus for the local senator doesn’t go as planned and she heeds the advice of a wise, judicious woman to help gain insight into the reason behind the fiasco. The plot develops with an urgent pace; elements of Maseo’s world are immersive and plausible, the characters are believable, the story feels like it could become a reality. It’s a delight to read and get lost in.  

Mame Bougouma Diene, whose novella Hell Freezes Over which was nominated for a Nommo Award, blends mysticism with science fiction in “Lekki Lekki”, the final story of the anthology. Huge trees contain “engines” that connect humans to a giant network of seemingly everything. Humanity had harmed nature, and now it must painfully adapt. This story conjures up interesting imagery for the mind and the story’s lyrical ecocritical otherworldliness is noteworthy. 

The anthology is a host to a range of wonders and imaginative worlds. Judging by what is contained within these digital pages, it’s regrettable that some of these writers have yet to become as widely read as their Western peers. This anthology is a brilliant introduction to Africanfuturism and hopefully its free PDF edition will attract new readers to the genre. I think it’s important that all serious fans of science fiction are conscious of the emerging talent in African science fiction. Publishers around the world should snap their stories quickly before they get beaten to it. 

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Railhead by Philip Reeve

Review by Christopher Owen. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Nominated for the Carnegie Medal and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, Railhead and its sequel, Black Light Express, are set in a future where sentient trains travel the galaxy. The Great Network is an intergalactic railroad that connects planets across the universe through mysterious portals. It is controlled by the rich, and obsessed over by railheads, riders who travel for no reason other than to see strange and distant planets. Zen Starling is a railhead.  

Zen Starling is a thief. With a sick mother and an overworked sister, Zen steals so they can afford to survive. But he also does it for the adventure, hopping trains to escape the law and travel the universe in the process. When a mysterious stranger named Raven approaches Zen and offers to pay him a fortune to steal a mysterious box from the Emperor, Zen agrees to pose as a distant relative of the Emperor’s large family and board the Emperor’s train. He is accompanied by a motorik, a humanoid robot, named Nova, and on the train he befriends the Emperor’s daughter, Threnody Noon. After a series of mistakes, Zen and Nova are forced to destroy the Emperor’s train, killing many (including the Emperor himself) and fleeing as terrorist outlaws.

Railhead by [Philip Reeve]

Their adventures lead them to the answers of the secret history of the K-gates, the portals that allow the trains to travel across the universe. It is a widely held belief that the K-gates were built by the Guardians, Artificial Intelligence so powerful that they became like gods, worshipped by humanity through digital prayers. But the Guardians are hiding the true origins of the K-gates, and Raven knows that the answer lies with the mysterious box Zen has stolen for him. 

Meanwhile, Rail Marshal Lyssa Delius has decided that Threnody Noon will be the next Empress. But Lyssa Delius fully intends to control Threnody, and in turn the Great Network. This sets off a civil war, causing Threnody and her criminal servant Chandni Hansa to flee into hiding and inadvertently join Zen and Nova on their adventures to learn the truth about the origins of their intergalactic society. 

The two novels feature imaginative world building with fascinating societies, complex systems of power and intriguing characters. The majority of characters are people of colour, and several protagonists are queer, including a gender non-conforming robot, a gay soldier and an asexual criminal. The borders between who is a human, who is a machine and who is a god are played with in a society that is as diverse as it is oppressive. 

The first novel, Railhead, is set in a universe in which a complex and unfair system of power pervades in the background of a thrilling adventure set on several different planets. The characters are well developed and interesting, and the story takes many surprising twists and turns. While it is unfortunate the book features the tired trope of a human boy falling in love with a robot girl, the book otherwise features some really unique and interesting characteristics in a richly imagined universe. 

Unfortunately, the sequel, Black Light Express, falls off the rails. This book really wants to be two books. The plot is unfocussed with a disconnecting structure. The ending feels incredibly rushed, and instead of tackling the system of power in a nuanced way, the story takes an easy and violent out that leaves several social issues unresolved. 

Railhead deserves all of its praise and award nominations, but its sequel, Black Light Express, is rather disappointing. Yet both books feature diverse characters, exciting adventures, and strange new worlds, demonstrating Philip Reeve’s famous imagination. 

Copyright Christopher Owen. All rights reserved

AfroSF Vol 3 edited by Ivor W. Hartmann

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Bookended by two very strong stories which show just what can be done with the “standard” sf theme, AfroSF returns with a third volume which takes a specific theme (“space”) and explores what it means, from out-and-out epic to stories of simple poignant humanity.

“Njuzu” (T. L. Huchu) combines sf and traditional story in a way which succeeds in bringing out vivid imagery and emotional strength. Following an accident on Ceres, the narrator takes part in traditional rites to appease the spirit-being who has “taken’” her son. There’s a lot in this story, which hinges on her being “forbidden” to cry, as this will ensure the entrapment of the lost boy. There is also the element of mutual resentment with her partner. As I read it, the ending of the story is an acceptance of the necessity of giving up comforting myths of hope, in order to keep hold of memory and love. Not all the stories that follow have the same sense of really experimenting with different interpretations of the fantastic, with sentences and half-descriptions suddenly causing you to think about what is being said, but Huchu is a strong writer to begin with.

“Home is Waiting for You” — The Space-faring Futures of AfroSFv3 | Tor.com

In Cristy Zinn’s “The Girl Who Stared at Mars”, the narrator, on an expedition to Mars, takes refuge in simulations, encountering the memory of a family tragedy. A crew member, trapped by his own inability to convince himself that their experience is “real”, makes things worse, but Amahle successfully confronts her own hesitations. Humanity is not lost simply because we are not on Earth: instead, Amahle is moving from one state to another (evoking, in a political sense, diaspora rather than colonisation?) yet keeping her sense of belonging.

“The EMO Hunter” by Mandisi Nkomo is ambitious but hazy; involving a post-Earth scenario and an “Earth Mother” religion. It’s not entirely clear whether the “Earth Mother Knights” (of which Joshua is one) are the good guys or whether Joshua’s wife Miku, who activates a clone to destroy him, is combating tyranny or trying to deal with her failing marriage. In contrast, “The Luminal Frontier” (Biriam Mboob) takes the flavour of space opera, which infuses several of the stories (not always to their advantage) and applies it to something larger. A ship in Luminal Space is messaged by the police. The crew are clearly involved in something illegal, and this means having to dump their cargo: something that, according to the religious ideas that infuse their views of the Nothing around them, is sacrilegious. And the cargo, we soon find out, is slaves. Later parts take place within a kind of dreamworld, following a time-paradox. The final part of the story is miles away from the beginning, and Mboob is clearly a writer who has a firm grip upon what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. 

This strange story, effectively mingling the science and spiritual aspects of the scenario, is followed by Gabriella Muwanga’s “The Far Side”. A spaceship captain smuggles his five-year-old daughter onto his ship despite a ruling that her asthma means he has to leave her behind. It’s story that features simple human relations: perhaps over-sentimental but calming the more experimental aspects of the collection. Wole Talabi’s “Drift-flux” is in many ways, a standard “Federation/Confederacy” trope of the type that space-opera writers are too fond of and, at times, marred by excessive infodumping. The Igodo witnesses the explosion of another ship, the Freedom Queen.  Orshio and Lien-Adel are “arrested” on suspicion of the bombing, but it soon becomes clear that there is an ulterior motive. “Drift-flux” would probably make a better tv episode than a short story, though that is not so much a criticism as an acknowledgement of way the strengths of its pace, action, and well-imagined scenario overcome its faults.

Possibly the most effectively-written story is “Journal of a DNA Pirate” (Stephen Embleton). The narrator is part of an experiment in human transformation, an experiment which is actually a terrorist enterprise. With its fusion of discontent, anger, and fleeting human contact, this, along with “Njuzu” and Mame Bougouma Diene’s closing story, best gives what transforms entertaining fiction into something memorable: a genuine sense of difference in worlds carefully and coherently imagined. For “formal” rather than “aesthetic” reasons several of the following stories don’t work like this. “The Interplanetary Water Company” (Masimba Musodza), in which the secret of a super-technology is hidden on a planet dislodged from its orbit, reads like the first chapter of a longer work. Dilman Dila’s “Safari Nyota: A Prologue” certainly is such. It is the space-opera beginning of a multimedia project with great potential; one that intrigues and invites you to follow it up, but about which snap judgement is unwise. “Parental Control” (Mazi Nwonwu) and “Inhabitable” (Andrew Dakalira) are competent but flawed. In “Parental Control”, the son of a human father and an android mother suffers taunts and prejudice until taken up again by his father. The father-son relationship works effectively. The “revelation” at the end doesn’t, though the story remains an effective use of science fiction to talk about painful aspects of everyday humanity. In “Inhabitable”, explorers find aliens needing their help, which they give. The action leads, however, to an unsettling end. Basically, competent traditional sf, the story needs room to breathe to become more.

Mame Bougouma Diene’s “Ogotemmeli’s Song” is the closing “bookend” strong story of the anthology. Though partly another space opera with Trekkish overtones, it soon moves to another plane entirely to features alien conversations and cultural conflicts on an epic scale with occasional flurries of topical locations and references and memorable images like “Ogotemmeli paddled his fishing boat of space dust along the solar winds”.

On this basis, AfroSF still has much to look forward to. This third volume’s thematic approach perhaps constrains as much as it liberates, but the best stories are those which pick up the theme and wrestle with it. To use a clichéd expression that I dislike intensely but which seems appropriate, there is a strong sense that the best writers here are taking up science fiction and owning it. Another successful snapshot of the talent to be found in Africa and the African diaspora.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games by Andrew Reinhard

Reviewed by Kerry Dodd. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

From the dual-pistol wielding Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (1996-present) to the suave Nathan Drake from Uncharted (2007-2017), video games are replete with heroic archaeologists and their exploration of lost worlds. While surely a far-cry from its real-world counterpart, these is a certain pervasiveness to excavational practice within digital media that demands further attention. Can video games themselves be artefacts? How would we excavate a virtual world? Can this medium extend archaeological practice? It is precisely these questions that Andrew Reinhard engages with in his compelling and lucidly written Archaeogaming – a fascinating study of the ‘archaeology in and of games’ (2).

Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games

Throughout Reinhard identifies that this is not just archaeology within video games, but also a perspective which encourages the identification of games as artefacts themselves. Fittingly, then the first chapter, ‘Real-World Archaeogaming’, examines the significance of video game physicality – arcades, retro shops, and developer studios – alongside the field’s potential to scrutinise recent cultural products. As the author outlines, video games are irrefutably artefacts of material culture and offer a fascinating insight into such intersections as 1980s popular culture and nostalgia. Take, for example, the urban myth of Atari burying multitudes of E.T: The Extraterrestrial (1983) cartridges in the Alamogordo city landfill – after its wide-spread acknowledgement of being ‘the worst game ever made’ (23) – a perfect encapsulation of real-world archaeogaming at play. Reinhard narrates their own experience as part of the excavation team that dug up the ‘Atari Burial Ground’, a fascinating insight which unseats archaeology as merely the study of ancient history to suggests its applicability to the recent past. This archaeology of garbage – or Garbology – thus allows a more faithful appraisal of contemporary material culture and how the waste left behind is intrinsic to artifactuality. Reinhard then turns to the virtual, cogently examining how video games have their own historicity too, one which can instead be identified through version and build numbers.  

Video game archaeological characters have a massive impact upon public awareness of the field, which Reinhard appropriately explores through their prominence of ‘Playing as Archaeologists’. Providing a brief, but informative, survey of the different roles which archaeologists plays in a multitude of texts, this study not only demonstrates the voracity of the trope but also its variance between back-drop setting and the implementation of excavational practice. The separation between archaeologist Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) and mechanical process poignantly queries how an ethical excavational practice can be deployed within the game format. For example, if we can study material culture through the waste left behind, how can this be translated to the digital? Exploring object looting and disposal in World of Warcraft (2004-present) and Elders Scroll Online (2014-present), Reinhard considers the historicity of virtual objects, how they each embody their own ‘fake’ and ‘real’ history while existing across multitudes of player-based instances. Crucially video game worlds can therefore become landscape to not only test and explore archaeological theory, but also one to challenge methodological practice. 

It is within this vein that Reinhard next turns to ‘Video Games as Archaeological Sites’ to explore the multifarious ways in which excavational practice can be applied to digital spheres. Utilising No Man’s Sky (2016) as the main example, the author identifies how the ‘No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey’ (NMSAS) – established by Catherine Flick with L. Meghan Dennis and Reinhard – is a platform that deploys a rigid archaeological structure to study the game’s procedurally-generated universe of over eighteen quintillion planets and its resulting material culture. Outlining an extensive and impressive background of archaeological theory, Reinhard’s meticulous approach offers a compelling framework through which the reader can also establish their own excavational study – the NMSAS’ ‘Code of Ethics’ are replicated in full at the end of the book, a compelling read indeed for interested parties. Certainly, one of the greatest strengths of Archaeogaming is its enthusiasm and openness to wider public immersion. I am particularly interested to see NMSAS’ future excavations now that No Man’s Sky has implemented full multiplayer features – arguably is applicability is as limitless as the procedurally-generated universe itself. Reinhard’s own documented landscape excavation of a Moon within No Man’s Sky is refreshing for its innovative approach, one which is not above commenting on the draw-backs and frustrations incurred from limited mapping mechanics in the game’s early versions. 

The final section, ‘Material Culture of the Immaterial’, engages with the complexity of studying the ephemerality of digital presence. Reinhard explores the importance of video game archives alongside the challenges of arranging these artefacts within a museum – are they categorised by genre, by publication date, are the games playable? Museums, of course, equally feature within games, a location which Reinhard interrogates similar to the previous archaeological character study. For indeed, while video games often point or gesture towards a narrativized history, often these are merely artificial or illusionary. In Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games no ‘past’ can be verified, as any traces of a player – such as discarded trash – are quickly eradicated. As Reinhard notes, although there may be no material trace to this intangible physicality, this does not preclude archaeologists from exploring the rich didacticism of these increasingly immersive frontiers. 

While some may challenge the validity of archaeological study within video game worlds, Reinhard steadfastly and convincingly presents their unique application for expanding excavational processes. To disregard this singular potential is thus to overlook the manners in which they enrich and challenge current practice, questioning our mediation of waste, artifactuality, and ‘presence’. Archaeogaming is by no means an exhaustive study of every excavational video game – and as the author notes, nor can it be – rather Reinhard provides a productive and compelling framework that indeed encourages the reader to enter the field and see what artefacts they too may uncover. 

Vigil by Angela Slatter

Reviewed by Duncan Lawie. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Urban fantasy, as we now know it, is dominated by a few big cities and a few common types of nightmare creatures. Angela Slatter’s success with Vigil is to make such a style work in a place as seemingly mundane as Brisbane, Australia and to do so with a collection of Weyrd more subtly defined than the default vampires or were creatures.

Whilst it is a long time since I lived in Brisbane, the city I see in this book is familiar. Slatter makes good use of iconic locations. The book returns repeatedly to the cliffs of Kangaroo Point, which feels like a natural gathering place for flying mythical creatures. West End, always friendly to those of a Goth outlook, works well as a suburb for the Strange to be hidden amidst the merely strange. The ordinary city comes alive too, particularly the incessant driving to get from one place to another.

Vigil

In common with much urban fantasy, we have a first-person female protagonist, a private investigator with a liminal role. In this case Verity Fassbinder has mixed blood. She was brought up by her normal grandparents after her Weyrd father died in prison for killing and butchering children. For the Weyrd of Brisbane, the old ways of preying on the normals are forbidden for selfish reasons rather than moral ones. Fassbinder Senior’s principal crime in their eyes was to bring them close to exposure.

There is an interesting theme here of fitting in, of being an immigrant community which needs to take up the apparent norms of their host society, but it seems a generation out of date. Both the Weyrd and regular human population of Brisbane we see here are immigrants from Europe to Australia and their descendants. I understand the nervousness most modern Australians feel about invoking the Aboriginal uncanny, but it seems a little odd that the waves of immigration of the last forty years aren’t visible.

Nevertheless, the Weyrd come from a broad variety of European ancestry – creatures of myth, fairy tale, nightmare. Many aren’t clearly identifiable types, which means they can take individual shape, whilst some “types” help to shape the plot. Amongst these are Sirens from Greek myth, though I am rather bemused that these are flying women, when I would have expected such to be called Harpies; perhaps that carries expectations of ugliness. The angels are dependent on the faith of the people for their power. The Three Fates run a cafe. 

The private investigator plot is a classic mechanism for explaining the city. There is every sense that this city, this community, has existed for a long time and that many stories are waiting to be told. Slatter throws several apparently unconnected mysteries into the mix and gradually shapes them together. Can the new boyfriend really be as good as he seems? Who is killing Sirens and why? How does The Winemaker connect to Verity’s father? Slatter builds up the intrigue, though there is never a genuine feeling of peril. Fortunately, Verity’s character convinces, to the extent that I found myself getting somewhat frustrated with Verity’s apparent obtuseness in chasing the clues placed in front of her. 

Perhaps this tells me that Slatter is a great writer, building the tension in her reader by showing us things which our protagonist has seen but not understood. There is clearly enough here to show that Slatter can plot well, but she needs a tighter edit. Verity’s relationship with her primary police contact is inconsistent, which makes it harder to understand either of them. Minor items would matter less except that the reader is trawling for clues – for example a conversation about taking a child to school the next day when that next day turns out, in the next paragraph, to be Sunday.

Beyond these gripes, Vigil is an entertaining read, particularly if you know the setting. 

Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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

Originally published as short stories in The New Yorker, and first collected in 1977, Kingdoms of Elfin was the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s books to be published in her lifetime. Although some of her books were among the first to be published as Virago modern classics in the late 1970s and her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), with its witch protagonist, is now well known, there was a period when Warner was chiefly remembered for her role in the anti-fascist generation of 1930s writers. Along with her life-partner, Valentine Acland, she joined the Communist Party and worked in support of the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Kingdoms of Elfin, with its enchanting and enigmatic tales of fairies scattered across Europe and beyond, seems far removed from such political concerns and yet under the surface there is something inexorable which gives these stories an exquisite, but nonetheless mortally sharp, edge.

Warner’s fairies are fascinated with the short-lived humans around them but not overly bothered about their individual welfare. In the first of these stories, ‘The One and the Other’, a changeling accidentally kills the human he replaces – who has already grown old and been evicted from the fairy kingdom he was taken by – while experimenting on his blood, but consoles himself with the thought that he can probably sell the body to the anatomists in Edinburgh. In ‘Elephenor and Weasel’, Elephenor finds himself working as the assistant to a travelling necromancer – involving, amongst other tasks, deploying his wings to imitate the devil – and loving every minute: ‘To have a great deal of power and no concern was the life for him’. In ‘The Occupation’, a group of fairies drive a Scottish clergyman mad by making a home in his manse and even attempting to clean it. In a rare but neat political twist, his wife leaves with the children ‘to live with her sister above a grocery shop in Glasgow, where she was much happier, just as dirty, and insisted on her standing as a Minister’s wife’. 

Yet, if humans and their foibles are relentlessly subjected to dispassionate scrutiny, Warner’s fairies, themselves, are also often shown as the victims of capricious fate. Or, at least, that is how it appears when viewed from a conventional perspective, but perhaps Warner’s greatest achievement is to encourage readers to dispense with their pre-existing moral frameworks, which are made to look narrowly time-bound in comparison with a more fluid fairy temporality. In ‘The Five Black Swans’, the dying Queen Tiphaine (Warner’s fairies are not immortal but have lifespans of centuries) of the Scottish elfin kingdom of Elphane, relives her relationship with the human Thomas of Ercildoune, making love outside whether in the dew-drenched grass, rain or even hail: ‘Love was in the present: in the sharp taste of the rowanberries he plucked for her, in the winter night when a gale got up and whipped them to the shelter of a farm where he kindled a fire and roasted turnips on a stick, in their midnight mushroomings, in the long summer evenings when they lay on their backs too happy to move or speak, in their March-hare cuvettings and cuffings.’ Here, the pure moment contains all of existence and thereby encompasses eternity as opposed to the insubstantiality of the conventional human present, enslaved by causality and condemned to endless unfulfilling repetition.

It’s not that fairies don’t have their problems. There is rather a lot of overly formal court procedure and an annoying class system that constrains those of the higher ranks from some of the more bodily pleasures, such as flying. However, being fairies, these boundaries are frequently transgressed. Long after they find themselves ejected at the text’s end on to the cold hillside, the memory of these tales will haunt readers with the lingering sense that we could live differently.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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

There’s a blurb on my copy of Gnomon where Warren Ellis explains how much he hates Nick Harkaway for having written it. I can relate: the ambition of this book would be enviable even if the execution weren’t very impressive. And the execution is very impressive indeed.

I need to capture Gnomon’s essence in not many more words than it has pages: a daunting challenge in its own right, made harder by my heaping praise on it in my opening paragraph. Readers familiar with my reviews will know I hold no truck with the Spoiler Police, but I’m nonetheless hesitant to reveal too much – not because outlining the plot would spoil your enjoyment of it, but because it’s effectively immune to summary. There’s just too much going on.

Gnomon

But still, let’s give it a go. For the setting, we have a dystopian future UK of the algorithmic-panopticon type: cameras and sensors everywhere, AI running all the things, democracy driven by mandatory online plebiscites covering everything from local disputes to major reforms of the legal apparatus. (It’s like the blockchain-enabled Society Of Tomorrow™ that features in TED talks, which is of course the point.) There are no police any more, only the Witness, one of whom – Meilikki Neith – is our viewpoint character. 

Neith has to investigate a high-profile case: the death in custody of a suspected dissident. Dissidents like Diana Hunter are routinely identified by the System and brought in for questioning; more often than not, their dissidence is diagnosed as some incipient or as-yet-unnoticed mental illness or social dysfunction, and is treated before they’re released to go on with their lives in a happier, more well-adjusted manner. The treatment and diagnosis are performed by the same means: a combination of innovations that make it possible to read human mindstates with an astonishing level of fidelity, and also to edit them. It is during such a questioning that Diana Hunter, minor novelist and luddite recluse, died. The rarity of such deaths merits Neith’s investigation – she’s one of the best – because it’s important that the System be seen to be fair, that due process is followed. 

The procedure is for Neith to review the memories retrieved from Hunter’s mind, so as to check whether she was the dissident that the System considered she might be, and whether her death was thus akin to the suicide of a captured enemy agent – to see if she had something to hide, in other words. Hunter’s memories are duly dumped into Neith’s mind. But while she’s waiting for them to settle, she decides to go gumshoe around in Hunter’s anachronistic house. The place is a Faraday cage, lined with books, devoid of cameras and sensors, and thus effectively off-grid in panopticonic terms. There, Neith meets an oddly-named androgyne who asks her a series of confusing questions, before roughing her up and doing a runner. In the aftermath of this assault, Hunter’s memories begin to surface in Neith’s consciousness… only it seems that they’re not Hunter’s memories at all, but those of a succession of other characters.

These could almost be treated as novellas in their own right: first-person accounts which bring the experiences of their narrators into sharp and immediate (if deliberately foreshortened) focus. Kyriakos the stock-market whizz-kid gains a god-like ability to see where the markets will turn, only to see them – and the rest of the world – turn sharply downwards. The alchemist Athenais is assigned to solve a Byzantine murder mystery that occurred in an occult contraption of her own fraudulent invention and ends up on an inter-planar vision-quest. Berihun, a feted artist in the last years of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, finds his creativity revitalised when invited by his games-designer daughter to contribute to her latest project, a dystopian surveillance-society RPG that presses all the wrong political buttons in a very Brexity contemporary Britain. And in a post-human far future, the book’s eponymous character takes up a tainted offer that might let them bring an end to all things, now, then, and forever more. As we move through these accounts, interspersed with Neith’s attempts to make sense of the mind they tumbled from, we realise that they are not mere nonsense that Hunter had hidden in her head, but something larger and stranger and more interconnected than that.

The central notion isn’t exactly original – it’s rather Strossean, in fact. I doubt I was the only reader who, a third of the way through, had a solid notion of Harkaway’s intended trajectory, not to mention an inkling of why he was going there. Perhaps this is a thing that only a writer would say, but there’s a sense in which the real protagonist of Gnomon was Harkaway himself: much tension came from wondering how, if ever, Harkaway was going to land this thing without tearing off the undercarriage and ploughing into a passenger terminal. I was prepared for (and would have forgiven) a moderately bumpy or abrupt landing, an ending that tried to play the game straight while using a doubled deck of cards. Heck, I’d have probably forgiven a hammer-it-home boot-on-a-face-forever conclusion – though that’s almost the exact opposite of what you get, even if things are far from happily-ever-after. 

But I never imagined Harkaway would have the audacity to have the book itself address me so directly and plainly in its final pages, to state its metafictional purpose while simultaneously claiming its own success… and yet he did, and it does, and it works (at least for me, shameless postmodernist that I am).

There’s so much more I could say, so much more I want to say, so much more I don’t know how to say. So I’ll just say: you should read it, it’s a masterpiece.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven.