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”

From Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi to The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Merit Ariane Stephanos 

Even the titles of the novels – The Queue and Woman at Point Zero – reroute  the thoughts towards recent emotionally exhausting lockdowns. They conjure interminable waiting, to the point of breakdown.  In a way, this is precisely what these books describe. However, the denials of freedom to move, associate and connect are not caused by a global pandemic but by local patriarchal, totalitarian societies. The fictionalised/documentarian versions of Egypt spiritually and physically destroy the respective protagonists, Armani and Firdaus. Both women are driven to extreme forms of exile from their societies, Firdaus by accepting a death sentence, Armani by self-enforced mental alienation. Although all genders in these two novels suffer from oppression, women are subjected to specific forms of violence highlighted by the writers. 

The sensitivity and detail in the portrayal of these forms of gendered violence is related to the fact that not only are respective authors both women, but they are both psychiatrists. Both writers are important figures in Egyptian society, renowned for their activism and respected as powerful intellectuals. The two authors have personally experienced state-inflicted violence for their resistance, their feminism, and their criticisms of other forms of oppression. Nawal El Saadawi was fired, exiled and threatened with imprisonment; Basma Abdel Aziz’s nickname is ‘the rebel’. Both novels portray an Egyptian society from a historical vantage point that are four decades apart (1975 and 2013). These have not been decades of ‘progress’: albeit fictionalised, oppression as presented by Basma Abdel Aziz in The Queue (2013) has become more suffocating and more all consuming.

Continue reading “From Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi to The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz”

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”

Fearless by Allen Stroud

Reviewed by Dev Agarwal. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Allen Stroud’s name will be well known to readers in this parish. He is currently BSFA Chair and has long been prominent in genre circles. His latest novel has been positively reviewed, including in Amazing Stories, where Ernest Lilley recommended Fearless and observed that Stroud brings “a Clarkian feel that grounds the story in the best tradition of science fiction.”

Fearless is, by flavour, not only science fiction, but specifically, space opera. Space opera, as a subgenre, has arguably two sets of defining characteristics. There is its iconography of spaceships, colony worlds, disasters, piracy and spaceship battles. However, equally important are its tonal choices of larger-than-life characters, intrigue, extravagant settings and fast-paced plotting.  Which Brian Aldiss neatly captured in his term “widescreen baroque.”

While it is fallacious to say that space opera is enjoying a renaissance (as it never went away) it is true to say that prominent names, including James S.A. Corey, Charles Stross and Ann Leckie, have boosted space opera and broadened its appeal. They built on the founding ideas of the original space opera and the popularity of the New Space Opera that came after it.  This number of books has inevitably crowded the field and the challenge for any writer is how to make their space opera stand out. 

Allen Stroud throws us into his version of the “widescreen baroque.” The novel is set in AD 2118 with habitats across the solar system (where humanity has colonised the Moon, Mars, Ceres and Europa). Fearless feels confidently New Space Opera, as it melds pyrotechnic action with ethical dilemmas and strong characterisation. This is particularly evident where Stroud challenges the male-dominated narratives of the past, to put a woman, Captain Ellisa Shann, in command of the space going vessel Khidr. Shann is one of the novel’s three first person protagonists (which also include two junior crew members, Johannson and Sellis). Shann is the most distinct of the narrators, in part because she was born without legs. Ordinarily, her story, or backstory, would include how she overcame this disability, or is defined by it.  However, Stroud has said that he “wanted to portray a disabled character in space who was not attempting to overcome her disability.” Shann’s disability is a part of her, rather than all of her.

Khidr is a rescue ship and this feels like a distinct social point that Stroud makes. He is writing space opera, and enthusiastically opening its toybox for the reader. But he is not revelling in the violence of a warship. Khidr has been described by other reviewers as analogous to the coast guard or an emergency service and its purpose ordinarily, is to assist other vessels, rather than fight. New Space Opera is able to widen the narrative to include people like Shann, physically disabled but still capable, who are in space with altruistic intentions––rather than opportunistic ones.

The Khidr’s role also allows Fearless to explore similar motivations to the work of writers like Frederick Pohl and Alistair Reynolds, who have looked at blue collar workers living in space and looking to make a living rather than warriors and world-beaters. These are the people who do the unglamourous and necessary work that often gets overlooked in the widescreen baroque.

Fearless begins with a routine emergency when Shann receives a call for help from the spaceship The Hercules. They expect to offer routine assistance, but this soon leads the crew into an attempted mutiny and Shann into a political drama that spans the colony worlds. Stroud’s use of three revolving viewpoints offers differing perspectives on the mounting crises both on and off the ship.

Space opera is well known for the speed at which tension mounts and the range of the catastrophes that its characters face. In Fearless, the plot develops fast, with all the narrative acceleration and pyrotechnic action that we might expect. The Khidr deals with an onboard murder, external attack by an unidentified spaceship, and intrigue and battles across the solar system. 

This setup gives Stroud an opportunity to turn a fresh authorial eye to a number of familiar tropes. Cliques in the space-going Fleet, hidden colony worlds and a tantalising alien manifestation dating back to Apollo 10 all appear. This makes for a story that is both a high-octane adventure and a character study for each of the three viewpoint characters.

In terms of plotting, Stroud walks the tightrope of completing the arc of his characters’ story by the final page and also setting up a sequel. He puts in motion a number of threads (starting with that alien manifestation that Apollo 10 encountered in real life) and it would have been unwise to try to neatly tie off all of these strands (and dissatisfying to the reader). By the end of the novel, the Khidr has discovered and abandoned artifacts and several political players remain unmasked and still working against the Fleet. At the same time, Stroud brings his novel to a satisfying dramatic crescendo.

Lastly, a mention for a stylistic decision that Stroud made. This is his use of present tense.  Stroud has said that this was a deliberate choice, having experimented with the form at shorter length. Ultimately, he found that present tense added more immediacy and tension to his writing. While it can be off-putting to read a long work in present tense, Fearless may just be the right place for readers to start.

And if you like Fearless, more is on its way as Stroud is currently at work on a sequel.

Copyright Dev Agarwal. 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”

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!

From Our Archive: Nisi Shawl

This article first appeared in Vector 247.

Colourful Stories

Fantastic Fiction by African Descended Authors, by Nisi Shawl

Everfair coverSo rich a sea, so broad the currents … in exploring fantastic literature by African-descended authors, where do we start?

“Begin at the beginning” is standard advice for writers. “Begin where you are” is more my style. Where I am at the moment, where I’ve been most of my life, is North America. Though I know there are many other schools of African-descended writers out there, myriad fabulists swimming in gorgeous array, I’m at my best talking about those with whom I’ve had the most contact, those about whom I have something substantial to say: those who inhabit the Western Hemisphere. In the course of this essay, then, I’ll focus on “New World” writers of fantastic fiction whose ancestors came from Africa. I’ll talk about specific works by them and also touch a bit on what I see as a commonly shared theme.
Just as important as my location in the three dimensions of physical space is my location in a fourth, time. When I am is one week out from learning of the death of my friend Octavia Estelle Butler. So despite the fact that her fiction’s far better known than that of some of her colleagues, it’s to her work I’ll turn first.

Octavia, as almost anyone who knew her will tell you, was not quite a recluse, but fledglingsomeone who valued her loneliness very highly. Yet a major concern of the heroine of Fledgling, her last complete book, is building a community. Shori belongs to a sentient species known as the ‘Ina’, and must consume human blood to live. In other words, she’s a vampire–but a scientifically plausible one. At its best, the Ina/human relationship is symbiotic, and Shori, survivor of a vicious, lethal attack on her original family, instinctively seeks to reconstruct what she has lost: a feminist-oriented blending of species and sexual preferences that might be the envy of a Utopianist visionary.

Shori’s other quest, of course, is to bring to justice those who murdered her mother, her sisters, and the humans they had gathered into their extended family. The killings may have been “racially” motivated; that is, though Shori’s not human, she has been genetically altered so that her skin is as dark as most blacks, and the tactics her enemies use are those of the Klan and other racist lynchers.

While it’s these last points that will probably impress most readers as drawing on African American culture, the book’s concern with social and familial structure shares the same roots, I would argue. Historically, most New World descendents of Africans came to this hemisphere as victims of the slave trade. This means that a large percentage of the cultural artifacts that survived that trauma are non-material. And even these were difficult to retain, subject to enormous stresses under the system of chattel slavery. Language, genealogy, occupational associations: all vanished or were transformed beyond easy recognition. It seems to me that a longing for these lost inheritances underpins the frequent tendency of New World African descendents to write what’s known as “third order” stories.
Continue reading “From Our Archive: Nisi Shawl”

Four Stories by Nina Allan

Early on in “Wilkolak”, the story’s protagonist, a London-based Polish teenager known as Kip, has spotted and photographed a man who he thinks bears a striking resemblance to a wanted criminal. But:

Kip didn’t want to think about the murder. It was the photograph of the murderer that interested him, some loser with a plastic carrier bag crossing the street. The image might seem ordinary but Kip knew it wasn’t, that the very act of framing the man in his viewfinder and then choosing to release the shutter made the picture significant. The main point of a photograph was to invite you to look, to concentrate on the world around you a little harder.

“Wilkolak” (which can be found in Crimewave 11) is a horror story with only the faintest hint of a suggestion of a trace of anything not scrupulously mimetic, yet this is a passage that can be taken as emblematic of Nina Allan’s approach to the fantastic in her short fiction. Situations seem ordinary, but are not, and their lack of ordinariness is signalled primarily by small details or moments. In “Wilkolak”, for all that the criminal’s victim is one Rebecca Riding, last seen wearing a red coat, and for all that the predatory nature of the man in the photograph reminds Kip of the Polish folk tale from which the title is taken, there’s no suggestion that the game of is-he-or-isn’t-he-guilty is going to resolve into a literal werewolf tale. Rather, if the fantastic lurks anywhere in this story, it lurks in Kip’s interactions with his girlfriend, Sonia, who asks for a print of the photo only to later reveal that it reminds her of a man she saw in a dream, “some kind of monster … He could kill people, just by looking at them”; and who, after a perfect afternoon in a park, insists out of nowhere that she wants Kip “to know that whatever happened today was real … That all of this really happened.” Such moments may seem to be sidebars to the main action, which circles around Kip’s growing fascination with the man, but the psychic dread they evoke is the story’s true motor.

Kip’s attraction to photography is typical, though: a lot of Allan’s protagonists either are or know people of a creative bent. In other stories she’s published this year we find a blocked writer of fiction, a somewhat desperate journalist, a documentary film-maker, and an acquaintance of a painter. The last of these, in “The Upstairs Window” (Interzone 230), provides the opportunity for another seemingly self-reflective passage. His paintings appear to be an abstract mass of colours, but in fact are composed of miniature paintings of disparate objects, whose connection is not at all clear to Allan’s narrator, Ivan:

Whenever Niko was interviewed he was asked to spill the beans on what the pictures were supposed to mean but he always refused. He said the meaning of any painting always depended on who was looking at it. I’ve never had time for that kind of talk and I didn’t pay it much attention.

Ivan may not have time for this, but we should; just because Allan’s stories are filled with the specific does not mean — in the best cases — that they are overdetermined. To go back to the earlier quote, framing does not determine meaning; framing is an invitation to look at the world around you.

And even in her overtly fantastic stories, Allan’s settings are recognisably derived from the world around her: that is, contemporary London. Often, the fantastic has been normalised; the first indication that the setting of “The Upstairs Window” is in fact not contemporary London, at least not as we know it, is a passing reference to what seems to have been a theocratic revolution. Gradually a clearer picture emerges, of a Britain in which the “Bermondsey Statutes” have instituted severe restrictions on freedom of expression, including the reintroduction of the death penalty for particularly upsetting artists. It’s these statutes that Ivan’s artist friend, Niko, has fallen foul of, and which mean he needs to flee the country. But that’s not what the story is about, it’s just what happens, and only part of what happens, at that. None of the threads are fully resolved; as Lois Tilton observes, it makes for an ending that forces us to choose, to find the overt meaning that the collage of glimpses seems to deny.

There’s another departure in Allan’s other Interzone tale of the year, the more science-fictionally sophisticated “Flying in the Face of God” (IZ227). This might have been the story of a bold American astronaut, Rachel Alvin, who’s volunteered for the deep-space adaptations known as the Kushnev process. Like Cordwainer Smith’s Scanners, or the Spacers of Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah”, once she’s gone through the process, Rachel will be removed from the normal run of humanity. The initial physiological changes involve thickened skin, paled eyes, reduced need for food and water, and by the time of the voyage the fliers will be able to exist in a “a kind of para-existence.” Allan’s focus, however, is not on the changes experienced by the woman travelling to the stars, but on the continuity experienced by a woman who remains behind. “Flying” is actually the story of the London-based film-maker, Anita Schleif, who has already had one flier in her life — her mother, now dead — and who in getting to know Rachel has had the misfortune to fall in unrequited love with another.

It’s a story with a complex relationship with more conventional sf, fully engaged with the troubled myths of the frontier that space exploration stories always draw on, yet more about a life touched by sf, struggling to integrate an sfnal event into the texture of the everyday, than about a life being shaped by sf, or using sf to shape the world. This is, of course, how it is and will be for most of us, most of the time, and I think the great achievement of the story is in the way it establishes a firm connection to the reader (at least this English reader) while acknowledging the frustrating partiality of any human connection — and without selling the strangeness of the Kushnev process short, to the point of actually allowing and succeeding in a moment of honest-to-god sense of wonder, when Anita visits Rachel before her launch: “She’s really going up, thought Anita. For the first time the sight of her friend brought not sorrow or anger, but awe.”

It remains an awe rooted in the specific — in the sense that Anita has finally seen Rachel’s new reality — but “Flying in the Face of God” is rare among Allan’s stories for representing a connection between humans so generously. “The Phoney War”, perhaps the best story Allan has published in 2010, portrays a more fraught situation, at all levels. In the foreground of the story is a journalist, Nicky, setting out on a journey to find out what’s happened to an old friend, across a landscape that if we didn’t read the story in Allen Ashley’s anthology Catastrophia we might at first think is just the greyest parts of Britain on an off-day. It soon becomes clear, however, that there’s an ongoing and pervasive deterioration. There are problems with the power supply. There are no broadsheets on sale, only slimmed-down tabloids. Petrol stations are empty. As much as anything, Nicky keeps working to try to impose a frame on the uncertainty, to force herself to pay attention to the world.

She still wrote for the Clapham Gazette even though her writing no longer paid her enough to make ends meet. She wrote her regular column in the form of a diary and it satisfied the same purposes: the need to externalise thought, the need to make sense of her life and above all the need to keep a record of the things that happened.

As Nicky travels, and the story flashes between past and present, we learn that the cause of the chaos is the possibility of first contact. News of impending alien arrival has caused widespread panic, and the government appears to have taken the opportunity to impose a more autocratic regime; the extent to which the former is exaggerated as cover for the latter is, to those on the ground, unclear. But this remains background — a more insistent background than the worlds of “Flying in the Face of God” and “The Upstairs Window”, but nevertheless — with Nicky’s foremost concern her attempt to find her friend. When she succeeds, however, on the cold coast at Dungeness, she finds that personal truth remains just as elusive.

In her conversations with her friend, and with the “foreign-looking” man she turns out to be living with, Nicky is almost, but not quite, allowed to reach a moment of understanding; indeed, another way of looking at Allan’s stories is that they almost all, in different ways, address moments of hesitation, both for their characters and for their readers. They get away with it, I think, because of the normalised, even mundane nature of Allan’s settings; but “The Upstairs Window” leaves threads dangling; “The Phoney War” refuses any neat emotional closure; “Wilkolak” ends literally in mid-scene, much like Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” leaving it to the reader to resolve the story. Only “Flying in the Face of God”, of the stories I’ve been discussing here, moves past the moment of hesitation to suggest that something like connection is possible — and even there, it may be a self-deluding, one-sided connection.

Nina Allan’s had a busy year, and a very strong one, yet I feel she’s still one of the better-kept secrets of British sf. What remains to be seen, I suppose, is how well she can sustain her approach — or how she evolves it — at greater length. Apparently she’s been putting the finishing touches to a novel; I’d like to read it.

Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson (2005)

Living Next-Door to the God of Love cover
Justina Robson has had one of the most interesting decades of any contemporary sf writer; by no means do I find all her novels successful, but they’re always fascinating to think about and rewarding to write about. My discussions of her story “Legolas Does the Dishes” and the most recent Quantum Gravity novel Chasing the Dragon have tried to set out some thoughts on how her body of work is developing, but the touchstone work for me remains Living Next-Door to the God of Love. A version of the following review first appeared in Foundation 96; thanks to Tony Keen for correcting my recollection of the end of Natural History.

Justina Robson’s fourth novel is about how we deal with possibility. At the end of Natural History (2003), humanity started to grasp the possibilities offered by Stuff – a disarmingly pragmatic name for a magical alien technology – with both hands. In Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Stuff is commonplace. With the aid of Unity, the intelligence guiding Stuff, humans have access to ‘sidebar universes’, worlds where they can do anything, be anyone. They can go to Metropolis, for example, and be a hero (or a villain); they can go to Sankhara, and live in a fantasy. The characters engage with this setting; they choose their stories. For one, it represents escape; for another, sanctuary; and for a third, it is home, something to be studied and understood. All of these assumptions are challenged in the course of this vibrant, intense novel.

The attention-grabbing first chapter opens in Metropolis. Our viewpoint, Jalaeka, is as much playing a role as anyone else in the city, but he seems to be less human than most. He’s an observer, and (for the moment at least) also a twelve-foot tall cupid with night-black skin and wings that beat on the fabric of reality. We stay with him until, at the end of the chapter, he flees the sidebar to escape Unity agents. It becomes clear that Unity is a collective consciousness, made up of the dreams and experiences of everyone it’s ever met. To become one with Unity – to ‘translate’ – is to disappear into a welcoming transcendence. Whether or not it represents oblivion isn’t clear, but most people, including Jalaeka, aren’t too keen on finding out. The point is underlined when, not too much later, it is offhandedly revealed that Metropolis has vanished, translated en masse. Back in the original reality, the human government isn’t best pleased about this development. Unity (or Unity’s representative, Theodore) insists that nobody has died, per se, but that’s not much consolation for a grieving family.

Meanwhile, Jalaeka has holed up in a sidebar to a sidebar, creating a replica Winter Palace in the back pocket of Sankhara (referred to as a ‘high interaction’ universe, which when it’s human intelligence doing the interacting is surely another way of saying the place is storyable). It’s in this world that we meet most of the rest of the cast and spend most of the rest of our time. Greg is a regular human, an academic researching Stuff and Unity. Rita is also human, but a partial avatar of Theodore. Hyperion and Skuld are Forged (biologically and cybernetically enhanced humans), but from very different backgrounds. And, of course, there is Francine, who with Jalaeka forms the novel’s center. Francine is a fifteen year-old runaway from reality: she has isolated herself from human interaction (symbolically and literally, by digging out the chip in the back of her hand that connects her to the local guide AIs), in an attempt to avoid the person she’s afraid she is, and become the person she wants to be. As for Jalaeka, our first instincts were right: he is not human. He is a side-effect of humanity’s contact with Stuff. We dropped into that everness like a stone tossed into the ocean, and the resultant splashes, drops and splinters scattered across reality. Separated from Unity, those splinters developed their own consciousness. Most were found and reabsorbed; Jalaeka is the last, and the shutdown of Metropolis demonstrates the lengths to which Unity is prepared to go to get him back.

You don’t have to get much further into Living Next-Door to the God of Love to realise that it isn’t going to be the novel you expect. Despite the high-stakes scenario, and the striking opening, its central story is relatively quiet. For most of its length, it is a study of the developing relationships between Francine, Jalaeka and Greg; each narrates sections of the story, their differing perspectives illuminating different facets of their situation. On one level it is a romance, and an uncommonly honest and thought-provoking one that looks at the costs, as well as the benefits, of relationships. But Robson never forgets the fantastic context within which her story is taking place, and uses it to explore and emphasise the reactions of the characters. An example: when avatars of Unity translate other characters, they are described as ‘eating’ them; and later, it turns out that they can call up instances of them, essentially recreating them from Stuff. Among other things this is a metaphor for how we carry others in our memories, and how coming to understand the experiences of others can affect and change us. Throughout, Theodore is always at least nominally trying to track down Jalaeka, but his schemes rarely feel urgent.

Robson is not always a writer of beautiful prose, and her landscapes, for all their variety, often seem rather dry; but she has a talent for characterisation, and is able to capture the uncertainty and rawness of strong emotion with some skill. In Living Next-Door to the God of Love, she has created a story and a setting that allow her to play to her strengths. We rarely get a true sense of the extravagant landscapes that Stuff allows. This is partly because those landscapes are frequently fluid—the Winter Palace changes and grows over the course of the novel; Sankhara is remade nightly, in a dreamtime shuffle that recalls Dark City—but it is also because Robson never quite seems comfortable with physical description. There is relatively little of it, considering how much the landscape changes, and when there is it often seems to strain to capture a sense of place. Of a cathedral that appears overnight, we are told: “It was gothic and black and almost entirely dwarfed by both the huge rocky bulk of SankhaGuide Massif and the twisting, half-alive towers of the Aelf, in whose shadow it stood at this time of the afternoon” (135). This is ungainly stuff, and lacking in specifics, and fails to take root in the imagination.

By contrast, Robson often excels at capturing the interior life of her characters. We viscerally understand how Francine and Jalaeka and Greg feel about where they are, even if we can’t quite picture it for ourselves. One of the most expansive moments in the novel is when Greg gains a glimpse of the cosmology of Sankhara, the centre of the galaxy of the planet of the city he calls home: “Disk stars and gas were so loud I couldn’t stand to look at them. Halo stars sang in almost single notes by comparison – a relief.” (200) Where a similar vista in, say, a Stephen Baxter novel would be a wonder unto itself, here it cannot be. Greg’s experience is central, and personalises our view; perhaps, Robson is saying, our experience is always central, because it’s the only thing tying us to the world. (The darkest moments in the book are equally personal, and more troubling because of it.) At the same time, Robson also has an ear for dialogue, and frequently uses discussion and debate (rather than flat explanation) to force the reader into a better understanding of her story, as when Greg and Jalaeka debate subjectivism (144–6). Her first-person voices are not as sharply differentiated as they might be, but the results can still be vivid, and in the context of the sketchy settings, disconcerting: flesh-and-blood characters walking through a wireframe world.

In one sense, given its distance from our contemporary lives, it is an abstract story, closer to pure thought-experiment than much sf gets. In another sense, given the questions being asked, it is about human nature at its most fundamental. Each of the characters is searching for self-understanding through love. Francine is just starting to understand who she might be; Greg has to ask who he is in the face of love’s loss. Even Unity is searching for answers: it wants to find the meaning of life, and create one if it turns out that currently there’s only an absence. Most intriguingly, Jalaeka is defined by love, to an extent that only becomes clear towards the end of the novel. Indeed, not just his identity, but his physical form is variable; although Jalaeka is male for most of the novel, he can just as easily be female. Jalaeka is not human, but he is a reflection of us. He is humanity trying to understand itself, and the novel is, in part, a window into his mind and into that process.

Living Next-Door to the God of Love is sf of the mind, not the world; that the scenery changes doesn’t matter nearly as much as the hopes and dreams that cause such shifts. Or to put it another way, it is a novel about character, if perhaps not classically a novel of character. Francine, Greg and Jalaeka are people who know their universe is made out of Stuff. They are conscious of their existence in a way that we generally aren’t; they can bitch about reality with a confidence that comes of knowing it is arbitrary. And yet, they are as cautious with each other as we are, because they remain human. The multiple first-person viewpoints allow Robson to demonstrate the shortcomings of the way we mentally model each other, all the time, but more than that the nature of Unity allows her to ask how existence and memory are linked. More than once in the novel, as the relationship between the two characters develops, Francine literally relives Jalaeka’s memories. The lines between them blur as their experiences converge (and don’t ask what you do when you’re confronted with the inevitable ex in that situation). What, the story asks, does a relationship ask of our individuality, our self-identity? What is the cost (given that Jalaeka is Unity writ small) of engagement with the universe?

It is, of course, an unanswerable question—where do we draw the line between our self and the world?—but Robson’s examination of it is thought-provoking and dramatic. It suggests that life is, finally, about negotiation—about finding the balance between your terms, and everyone else’s. A simple epiphany, perhaps, and for these characters strengthened by a metaphysical certainty that in the real world we lack, but no less intoxicating for that. Living Next-Door to the God of Love is a story of grand melancholy, pain, and – most wonderfully, despite everything – choosing to live. It is, as I said, about possibility; and, of course, about love.

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.