Amir Tag Elsir, Telepathy: A Novel (2015)

telepathyThe narrator of Sudanese Amir Tag Elsir’s Telepathy (2015), a moderately successful author, returns from a trip to Kuala Lumpur, where he has been gathering impressions, incidents, ideas, character traits and even potential characters for his next novel. However, back in Khartoum, he finds himself living in the peculiar fall-out of his previous novel, Hunger’s Hope, when he runs into a man with the same name as its improbably-named protagonist, Nishan Hamza Nishan.

At first the narrator thinks it is some kind of stunt. Or perhaps an overzealous fan has, in misguided tribute, changed his name.

But the ‘real’ Nishan only found out about the ‘fictional’ Nishan when a neighbour – Shu‘ayb Zuhr, an unemployed graduate of the college of Public Relations and, it turns out, aspiring but uninspiring poet – brought Hunger’s Hope to his attention.

And, anyway, the ‘real’ Nishan has only read the first 120 pages. He does not know that in the second half of the novel the ‘fictional’ Nishan – whose biography up to that point is uncannily similar to his own – dies an untimely death.

The narrator recalls that writing Hunger’s Hope came to him much too easily – as if the ‘real’ Nishan had dictated it to him telepathically. Indeed, he concludes, telepathy is the only way the near identity of the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real’ Nishans can be explained; the divergences between their ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ lives are surely the result of the ‘real’ Nishan’s broadcasting telepathically but unconsciously. (The narrator’s mentor, the octagenerian playwright Abd al-Qawl, is little help; he merely recalls that one of his most controversial early plays was dictated to him through 26 dreams on 26 consecutive night.)

What is the narrator to do? What does he owe to the ‘real’ Nishan? Has he – by giving the novel that ending – condemned the ‘real’ Nishan to an early grave? And where has the ‘real’ Nishan suddenly disappeared to? And what should the narrator do when former communist Asim Ajib, once known as Asim Revolution, and now founder of the Nonaligned Publishing house invents a jacket blurb by him for a collection of Shu‘ayb Zuhr’s poems? Are there plots and conspiracies, however absurd, afoot? And what exactly is the role of Najma, wannabe writer, not-exactly-fan/not-exactly-friend in all of this? And why has she chosen him as the father of the child she want to have?

Amir Tag Elsir’s short comic novel is full of curious incident and odd, often rather sad, characters, such as Murtaja, a young man who ‘was studying at the university and went mad. Now he declares confidently that he is Wikipedia … and that in his head are a billion pages on which the entire world is written’; he roams ‘around in torn shorts, staring at the ground while reciting odd stories from the version of the Wikipedia that lived in his head’. The narrators life and Khartoum itself are slightly out-of-focus jumbles of layered histories, of migrations and separations, of differences of wealth, custom, tradition and rank.

A quick and easy read, Telepathy piles up rather more questions than it answers. Its conclusion is deliberately abrupt. A final sentence screeches the novel to a halt, reframing (but not explaining) everything that has happened (or not happened) before.

 

Tag Elsir, born in Sudan and now resident in Qatar, is the nephew of Tayeb Salih, author of Season of Migration to the North (1966) which was one of my top reads of 2016; it is much too soon to decide whether Telepathy will make this years list.

 

 

Billy Kahora, ed., Imagine Africa 500 (Lilongwe: Pan African Publishers, 2015)

12208473_10207887868455361_7005059626302233307_nThis fifteen-story collection emerged from an sf writers’ workshop in Malawi, for which the final assignment was to write a story set 500 years in the future.

It opens with the bleakest of them, Muthi Nhlema’s ‘One Wit’ This Place’. After the geo-engineers have failed to save the world from devastating climate change, at the ‘terminus between the Oce and the Sah’, a woman awaits the return of her soldier husband. He is a traumatised as the Earth is scorched, and catastrophe keeps coming.

Other stories are set after the apocalypse has been and gone. Dilman Dila’s ‘Snake Blood’ is an almost-fantasy tale of dynastic and domestic struggles years after The Great Disaster. In Catherine Shepherd’s ‘Xaua-Khoe’, an old man recalls his grandfather explaining to him when he was a child that the ‘giant metal flowers’ dotting the ‘arid landscape’ are ‘defunct wind turbines … Clean energy that came too late’. Disease has swept the world in Lauri Kubuitsile’s ‘When We Had Faith’, leaving only a brutal fundamentalist regime unscathed. Aubrey Chinguwo’s ‘Closer to the Sun’ imagines a crazy plan to wipe out all human life on Earth, apart from a new Adam and Eve, which is news to one of them. In Derek Lubangakene’s ‘Transit’, some genius has only gone and made all the men on the continent impotent, which may or may not be the apocalypse, the jury is still kinda out.

In Tuntufye Simwimba’s ‘Tiny Dots’, the world still hangs in the balance; global warming is intensifying, cancer is like a wildfire, but in all of this, it is still possible for an accident – and an Empire Strikes Back joke – to reunite an estranged father and son. Somehow, in Wole Talabi’s ‘Necessary and Sufficient Conditions’, humanity won the Singularity War, and new technologies have led to an African ascendance, but even in this continent-wide Wakanda there are reasons for a son to want to murder his father. Similarly, in Musinguzi Ray Robert’s ‘Unexpected Dawn’, a united Africa arose in the aftermath of the Eighth World War and survived a Ninth – and there is nothing a recalcitrant Texas can do about it.

Other stories imagine a future of more or less endless capitalism and patriarchy. In Hagai Magai’s ‘Those Without Sin’, a thirty-something son, who got himself imprisoned to escape a world of whose changing values and priorities he despairs, returns home to find everything changed and still changing. Frances Naiga Muwonge’s ‘After Market Life’ depicts Nama’s last day selling actual, non-synthetic food in Kampala’s market as she anticipates her new life with an American husband. In Hannah Onoguwe’s ‘A Is A Four Letter Word’, some little shit blackmails his teacher, who is also his best friend’s mother, for sex, because he knows a secret that could destroy her (and because he is a little shit with no compunction about behaving like that). In Tiseke Chilima’s ‘Women Are From Venus’, women long ago had the good sense to decamp to our sister world, even if it required massive biological transformations, but it has only made women-traffickers all the more devious.

The Venus we do not see nonetheless points to some utopian possibility, as does Stephen Embleton’s ‘Land of Light’, with its vision of a rebuilt Africa united into two fraternal states, and of reconciliations and spiritual connection.

But personally, I found the utopian trace with which Chinelo Onwualu’s ‘The Wish Box’ ends more appealing. A cunning indictment of the philanthropy of its well-meaning protagonist, the story culminates with the sudden flowering of class-consciousness, and rage, in the glinting of a child’s eyes.

Imagine Africa 500 is a smart and engaging addition to the growing number of anthologies of African sf, not quite as literary as Nerine Dorman’s Terra Incognita, nor quite as pulpy as Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSF collections. Billy Kahora, The Story Club and Pan African Publishers are to be congratulated for setting this all in motion, for their commitment to developing new writers, for their efforts to address the domination of African sf by South Africa and Nigeria – Imagine Africa 500 includes five authors from Malawi, four from Uganda and one from Botswana, as well as three Nigerians and two South Africans – and by male writers – two-fifths of the stories are by women, which is not parity but is heading in the right direction.

[My thanks to Trine Andersen for providing a copy.]

Some Theses on Monsters; occasioned by reading, and in place of a review of, Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas, eds, African Monsters (Fox Spirits Books, 2015)

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[A version of this piece appeared on the Salvage website]

We live in a world being made monstrous.
By us. Inhuman and obscene (and anthropocene). Not merely unhomely but uninhabitable.

And it is a time of monsters.
Aliens and kaiju, zombies and mutants, giant robots and costumed freaks lay waste to our cities. Rumbling urban smackdowns between unknowable forces scorch the Earth for those with an eye to the main chance. Property developers. Gentrifiers. Buy-to-let landlords. Their snouts in the tattered remains of a public purse no longer really intended to serve the public. At the same time, politicians and journalists casually – and with the most deadly of intentions – label people on our borders and estates and social security as not really human at all.

Monsters mean.
They are good for thinking with – from Marx’s vampire capitalists and cyborg factories to the brain-eating undead ghouls that shamble relentlessly across all our post-millennial screens, large and small, dragging the mechanisms by which biopolitical states of exception operate out into plain sight.

Even though monsters might not exist they are the most material of metaphors, and more than mere metaphor.

They matter and make meaning.

Monsters refuse monstrosity.
In Tade Thompson’s ‘One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sunlight’, a deliberately self-interred then accidentally disinterred West African vampire tells his tale. He turned his back on the human world, but had to return to it to learn how to be in a world to which he could never belong. With chilling composure he observes armies clash and people kill for reasons he cannot fathom. He remembers a tale he was told in childhood in which – reworking Dracula’s voyage to Britain – one of the vampire kind, taken unknowingly, broke free in a slaveship and killed everyone onboard. Despite this, the monster, it is clear, was not the real monster. Like the protagonist, the monster refuses – rather than denies – monstrosity. The monster resists and refutes it. He buries himself. He walks away.

‘He had the combined face of a pig and a monkey, which comforted her.’ And so it should. All of us.
Even if we must rip this line from Dilman Dila’s ‘Monwor’ completely out of context.

You must look closely to spot the monster. Although it’s not hard.
The eponymous and implied monster of Tendai Huchu’s ‘The Chikwambo’ is a motley being, an exquisite corpse: it has ‘the face of a new born baby’, albeit with ‘the head dangl[ing] to the side as if stitched up to the neckless body’, and the ‘hands’ of a ‘monkey, the legs of a baboon and [a] torso made of a patchwork of cloth and dried animal skins, fur from rabbits and cows’. A Chikwambo is created by huroyi, or witchcraft, usually for a businessman looking to get rich. All he needs to do is feed it with a relative’s blood and ‘that blood metamorphose[s] into money’.

It’s a labour-power equation. The Chikwambo can eat or die; the businessman should fuck off and die.

Likewise, in Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘Bush Baby’, there’s a wastrel gambler turned thief, the gwei-gwei pursuing and torturing him for stealing its mat, and the men who lied to the wastrel gambler thief, tricking him into stealing from the forest-spirit even though they know it will cost him – agonisingly – his life. Spot the monster.

Is there some calculus by which we can determine the moment at which the becoming-monstrous occurs? At which capital is embodied and the capitalist becomes capital?

When the monster is monstrated and the line is drawn, the monstrator is always on the wrong side of it.
See Apartheid (cf. James Bennett and Dave Johnston’s comic ‘A Divided Sun’).

Monsters are the world.
In Zambia’s Ndola sunken lakes the Ichitapa lurks. If your shadow falls on the water, the monster will cut it from your body, and you will fall into the water and be devoured. There were thing here before us, Jayne Bauling’s ‘Severed’ tells us, things we cannot account for. Things that will remain long after we – individually and as a species – are gone. They predate us, and they pre-date us, and they will be our post-.

There might be a time when the only ethical thing left for us is, as a character in Vianne Venter’s ‘Acid Test’ seems to think, a radical green accelerationism. Bring it all down, and let the world return.

(Delightfully, and perhaps instructively, Ndola is a twin town of Aldershot.)

Your description of the monster misdescribes the monster and destroys it.
In Joe Vaz’s ‘After the Rain’, strange and deadly things emerge from the abandoned mines swiss-cheesing the ground beneath Johannesburg. Even the bugs in the mountainous mine dumps fear these creatures. They prey on township folk, like some contorted repressed returning, a reminder of the suffering and immiseration and state violence under Apartheid and since.

Mistaken for ‘long skinny men with dog-heads’, the creatures turn out to be dogs, ‘standing on long hind legs, balancing [their] weight on the tips of [their] paws’, a correction that is also mistake. Whatever they are, they are that, not something or some other thing that they resemble. Not the isomorphic protagonist, who got out as a nine-year-old back in 1986 and only now, thirty years later, returns.

But this is what happens when the monster ventures from its lair into normalcy.

Its angularity, its awkward and improbable being, its ferocity and anguish, get domesticated. Like a dog.

‘History is what hurts’, Jameson tells us, failing to add: ‘That, and monsters’.
They hurt and they hurt. They are in pain, and they bring pain.

Like the witch in Sarah Lotz’s ‘That Woman’ and the women who support and protect her because justice is not going to come from patriarchy or the state. Like the daughter of the old witch in Joan De La Haye’s ‘Impundulu’, who unleashes her just rage and anguish – and the eponymous lightning bird – not only on the man who raped her and made her miscarry but on all those who would take his side. On what we, often glibly, call rape culture and patriarchy.

As if naming them contains them.

 The other has just as much right (and wrong) as the self.
Which doesn’t mean it’s easy or comfortable, as Su Opperman’s grotesque comic ‘The Death of One’ shows us.

Although maybe I’m reading it wrong. Maybe what I should be paying attention to is the page split into four panels, across the top two of which the man says ‘the death of one is…’ and across the bottom pair of which the sawtooth-beaked, bird-headed man-thing with too many eyes concludes ‘…is life to the other’. This is not some Lion King circle-of-life pablum, but a call for the dissolution of the monadic subject (and his comedy sidekick, the rational economic actor). An invocation of full communism.

‘If you see a monster at your doorstep’, Grandma says in Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘On the Road’, ‘the wise thing to do is shut the door’. Grandma is wrong.
The other is not really other, Lacan says, it just reflects and projects the ego. The Other is radical alterity. It cannot be identified with. It cannot be assimilated. It is unique and beyond representation and it is also the system of representation – the symbolic – that mediates the relationship between the radical, unassimilable alterity of subjects. The Other we first encounter is – quelle surprise! – the mother, defined of course by her phallic lack, which in turn figures the signifier that is always missing.

‘There is an abyss between this world and the next,’ the narrator of Toby Bennett’s ‘Sacrament of Tears’ writes, ‘I fear my nephew looked deep and could not make sense of what he saw’.

But perhaps the abyss is not a vagina, and the vagina is not an abyss.

Perhaps difference is not a lack at all.

Perhaps difference is an opening-out, a flowering into the realm of monsters. Which is where the monadic phallic white subject already, unbeknown to himself, lives. Along with us all.

Perhaps, like the queer, monster-embracing protagonist of Nerine Dorman’s ‘A Whisper in the Reeds’, we should not focus so much on the monster entering our world but instead on going away from here with the monster. On becoming monster.

Because difference is an opening-out onto that place beyond, which is called hope or utopia.

Not just full communism.

Full-on communism.

Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise (Volker Schaner 2015)

lee-perry-Poster-copy.jpgThere is a moment in Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise (2015), when Volker Schoner shows some poor journalist asking Perry what his typical day is like and then sitting there bemused as ihe mprovises a rambling reply, which ultimately comes down to something like ‘I wake up and see what’s on my to-do list’. But it doesn’t sound anywhere near as mundane as that. (The haplessness of the journalist reminded me of that time The Word sent some child to interview Henry Rollins, and she asked him what music he listens to. He describes playing the first four Black Sabbath albums back-to-back; the journo, who clearly does not know Black Sabbath other than as the name of some band to whose wax cylinders her grandpa used to listen, asks ‘what is that like?; Rollins replies, ‘Dunno, have you ever been killed?’) This is quite a cunning move by Schoner, a sneaky displacement of his own bemusement – but he is clearly also often baffled by his subject.

The film is rightly being touted as a portrait of Perry since it offers no real insight into him, but allows you to spend 100 minutes in his impish company, which is frequently delightful, always entertaining. He has the most fabulous laugh, and clearly is often just messing with the filmmakers, being mischievous, playing up and playing on his image and reputation. And there is also a seriousness to his Rasta politics, from which he never shies away; this is accentuated in the final twenty minutes of the film  when the occasional, playful animations become increasingly apocalyptic.

The film also offers little in the way of history. There is discussion of the Black Ark studio, now sadly in ruins, though that is largely Perry’s own doing, since  it was him who set fire to it. And there is an effort to get the scoop on Perry’s relationship with Bob Marley.

But mostly we see Perry in various situations and contexts just doing his thing: he doesn’t really do conversation so much as improvised discourse built around patterns of repetition and rhymes and variations (in this, he reminded me of Lord Kitchener and other calypso singers who predate reggae and dub).

We missed the film when it screened at the Cube, so took a train over to Cardiff to catch it at the Chapter Arts Centre (trip and tickets came to roughly the cost of seeing a film in Leicester Square – but with none of the regrets that come with paying that much to see 30 Days of Night (Slade 2007) or Battleship (Berg 2012)). We were joined by a dozen other white folks in a 48-seater, we were probably the youngest people there, and occasionally I found myself worrying people were laughing at rather than laughing with Perry. But if it was the former, that is largely a product of how the film stays outside its subject – he remains an elusive and impenetrable subject, but that is part of why he matters so much.

Nick Wood, Azanian Bridges (2016)

book_azanianAzanian Bridges is a neat little thriller, set in more or less the present-day South Africa but in a world in which Apartheid continues.  A quick and compelling read, it does a couple of rather cunning things.

The first is its choice of alternate history premise.

There are a number of African alternate histories which invert or rewrite elements of European colonialism (e.g., Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa (2006), Africa Paradis (Sylvestre Amoussou 2006)  – and Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (2016) to look forward to).

There is a future history imagining the conditions for the emergence of something akin to Apartheid (Arthur Keppel-Jones’s When Smuts Goes: A History of South Africa from 1952 to 2010, first published in 2015 (1947)).

There is an array of near-future thrillers that anticipate the end of Apartheid (Anthony Delius’s The Day Natal Took Off (1960), Gary Allighan’s Verwoerd – the End (1961), Iain Findlay’s The Azanian Assignment (1978), Randall Robinson’s The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay (1978), Andrew McCoy’s The Insurrectionist (1979), Larry Bond’s Vortex (1981), Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981), Frank Graves’s African Chess (1990)).

And there is an alternate history with the brilliant premise of aliens arriving in the skies over Johannesburg during the Apartheid era, although sadly District 9 (Blomkamp 2009) doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. (Read Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014) instead.)

But, as far as I know, Azanian Bridges is the first story to project Apartheid beyond 1994.

In doing so, Wood sketches in some sly geopolitical changes. The Soviet Union did not withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, but has spent thirty years ‘haemmorrhaging men into their Afghan ulcer’ (31). Perestroika and glasnost seem not to have happened, and the USSR is intact, apparently governed by generals. The Berlin wall has not fallen, nor has the Eastern bloc collapsed. Consequently, ‘the old anti-communist arguments for supporting’ South Africa (163) held sway rather longer among Western powers, and it comes as little surprise that Bush and Blair were both supporters of the Apartheid regime. But now President Obama – along with his ally, the US-backed mujahideen leader Osama bin Laden – are involved in peace talks with the Soviets. The Cold War might finally be limping into its terminal phase, and with weakening Soviet influence in Africa, China is investing heavily across the continent. Meanwhile, in a South Africa ruled by President Eugène Terre’Blanche’s Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, Mandela did not leave Robben Island and FW de Klerk is still in prison for trying to bring Apartheid to an end in the 1980s.

All of which is sketched in with greater economy than I have just managed, not least because the layers of paranoid security and firewalling significantly restrict all South Africans’ access to the internet and other global media. Phones with cameras are also banned since they are a ‘potentially easy source of troubling video’ (45) – a nice touch that captures the novel’s relevance to our #blacklivesmatter times.

The second (and really really) cunning thing that Wood does is make a connection between the new experimental technology introduced into this alternative near-present and the form his narrative takes: the Empathy Enhancer allows one to experience the experience of others, and vice versa; the novel’s chapters alternate between Sibusiso Mchunu, a young amaZulu on the edges of anti-Apartheid struggle who is deeply traumatised when a friend dies in his arms, shot to death by the police at a protest, and the white (but as-yet not very committed) liberal, Dr Martin Van Deventer, the neuropsychologist treating Sibusiso and co-inventor of the Empathy Enhancer.

The security services want the EE device for use in interrogations. Anti-Apartheid groups want to use it to undermine the regime, person-by-person. It is not clear why the Chinese want it, but they do. So when Sibusiso goes on the lam with the device, and Martin sets out in pursuit, the alternating chapters set you up to expect a tensely intercutting thriller, as pursuers become the pursued.

And there are a number of tense sequences and suspenseful passages.

But Wood is playing a very different game, subverting the form to make the reader focus on the twin protagonists’ very different experiences of living in a racist state which sees them both, in different ways, as its enemies. This ranges from the most perilous things – run-ins with the security services – to the most quotidian: when Martin is told to destroy his cell phone so it can’t be used to trace him, he simply ‘grind[s] the phone under [his] heel’ (153); when Sibusiso’s phone is simply taken from him and tossed into the sea, he is ‘upset and angry’, in large part because ‘we have been taught to throw nothing away’ (129).

Such contrasts are the point of the novel.

Azanian Bridges itself is the Empathy Enhancer. Read it and weep.

Chappie (Neill Blomkamp 2015)

onesheetand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Chappie (2015), Blomkamp’s bizarre mash-up of RoboCop (1987) and Short Circuit (1986) and every other sf cliché he could ineptly execute, is not that the Asian scientist actually gets to be played by an Asian actor (Dev Patel), although that is a vast improvement on having Fisher Stevens in brown face, nor is it the decision to subtitle only Brandon Auret’s heavily accented but comprehensible English rather than whatever heavily accented (Aussie? South African?) language it was Huge Jackass was alternately mumbling and shouting, nor is it that even after this disastrous mess of a movie the internet still kept on whingeing about Blomkamp not getting to make an Alien movie, but the fact that, at absolutely no point in the production, did anyone involved turn around to Blomkamp and ask him how much did José Padilha pay to make the RoboCop remake look less bad than it is? or even, less cynically, you do realise what a fucking bloated, idiotic, self-important, tone-deaf mess this is?

Afrocyberpunk 3: Steven Barnes, Streetlethal (1983), Gorgon Child (1989), Firedance (1994)

Barnes Steven - Aubrey Knight 01 - Street LethalIn 1993, Claire Sponsler argued that cyberpunk reworked earlier post-nuclear-holocaust narratives (Alas, Babylon; A Canticle for Leibowitz; Riddley Walker) which depicted, with ‘angst and ambivalence’, a ‘physical world [that] is unfriendly, unyielding, and unforgiving’, a ‘hostile and forbidding … no-man’s land where humans must struggle to survive’ (257). In contrast, for cyberpunk ‘destruction of the natural environment and decay of the urban zones are givens that are not lamented but rather accepted’ (257). In ‘decayed cityscape[s]’, cyberpunk found ‘a place of possibilities, a carnivalesque realm where anything goes and where there are no rules, only boundaries that can be easily transgressed’ – and where entry into cyberspace, a disembodied realm of deracinated liberation, is ‘encouraged, not hampered, by a milieu of urban decay’ (261).

Thomas Foster’s The Souls of Cyberfolk criticises this view, reminding us that part of the cultural backdrop against which the cyberpunk imaginary emerged was the discourse of urban planning and development that came to the fore in the US in the 1970s and 1980s – and that its ‘language of urban “ruin,” “decay’” or “blight”’ possessed ‘ideological and often specifically racist subtexts’, providing an encoded way of talking about ‘racialized inner-city ghettoes than cities in general’ (206). (It is well worth having this is mind when reading Delany’s Dhalgren, too.)

Steven Barnes’s Aubry Knight trilogy – among the trashiest of afrocyberpunk fiction and in some ways much more afro than cyberpunk – gets closer than any other cyberpunk I have read to acknowledging this urban-planner/property-developer discourse and its racial content.

Written before William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Streetlethal (1983) sits alongside cyberpunk, developing similar material rather differently. The trilogy’s ongoing negotiation with 51WfmS5e1uL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_cyberpunk is most evident if we judge Barnes’s novels by their covers. Barclay Shaw’s 1983 cover – where it is difficult to tell that the protagonist is black – combines 70s martial arts imagery with hints of a post-apocalyptic scenario, perhaps like The Ultimate Warrior (Clouse 1975). It alludes to Mad Max, but the overturned car and shattered road bridge give way to an airy futuristic metropolis. The jacket blurbs point to a conservative tradition of adventure sf (Larry Niven), made a little more decent (Gordon R Dickson) and perhaps a little edgier (Norman Spinrad) (Firedance (1994) adds a blurb from Peter O’Donnell, the creator of Modesty Blaise). The 1991 reissue of Streetlethal retains these three blurbs but has a new cover by Martin Andrews that builds on the imagery of Luis Royo’s cover for Gorgon Child (1989) (rather 593041more effectively than Royo’s cover for Firedance). Aubrey is definitively black. His costume suggests a black urban cool coming out of the dancier end of hip-hop. His dark glasses turn cyberpunk’s mirrorshades black. The urban backdrop is more ambiguous, with hints of futurity and ruination. The female figure is like a rock video version of Molly, Gibson’s street samurai. (The relationship between the women on the covers and the female characters in the novels remains mysterious to me).

From its first sentence, though intermittently, Streetlethal draws on noir imagery and, like Gibson, science-fictionalises it. The novel begins:

Naked and transparent, the woman’s smooth white body undulated slowly, beckoning to the empty streets. The streets were still slick from the afternoon rain; the hologram reflected back from the wet asphalt, an erotic mirage.

[Maxine] steered him further down the street, past the fluxing, beckoning projections that lined Pacific Coast Highway. Soundloops triggered by their passing cajoled, promising the finest in services and goods, the ultimate in intimate experience. A hungry taxi-drone paused on its eternal run down the central guidestrip, and Maxine waved it on. (1, 2-3)

41XSvGIDuwL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_.jpgThe overall plot is also rather noirish. Maxine uses sex to betray Aubry, framing him for murder as part of his punishment for quitting work as muscle for the Ortega gang. He is arrested and imprisoned in the Death Valley Maximum Security Prison; he escapes, makes his way back to Los Angeles, wreaks revenge.

Unlike Gibson, Barnes also works in a blaxploitation mode. Aubry is large and immensely powerful figure, a streetfighter turned Nullboxer – a kind of zero-gravity MMA. Inhumanly strong and determined, there is at times something of Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree and Jim Kelly to him. He is not very smart, though, or well-socialised; the later novels gradually cure him of this emotional/psychological stuntedness, turning him from a kind of Luke Cage into someone more like T’Challa, the Black Panther. Barnes draws on cultural-political strains of black power, Afrotopianism, Afrocentricity and Pan-Africanism (In Firedance, Aubry discovers he is actually African, an child of the Ibandi tribe of warriors who was orphaned in the US. He returns to Africa to topple the insane, Japanese-backed insane military dictator of Pan-Africa, which is composed of six countries: Zaire (Congo), Tanzania, Uganda, possibly Kenya and two never-named others.) Barnes presents a matter-of-fact multiracial and mixed-racial future. More awkwardly, but in a generally positive way, he includes a lesbian separatist community and a group called the NewMen – physically imposing, genetically-engineered warriors, who are all also homosexual. (This sort of diverse future caught between the ghetto, the gang and the New Jim Crow is developed in Erika Alexander and Tony Puryear’s Concrete Park.)

At the centre of Streetlethal is the Los Angeles downtown:

Downtown Los Angeles covered some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and in the 1960’s and ’70’s it had become run-down. Property values were slipping. There was a major effort to clean the area up, to bring in investors. … [Impoverished, homeless] Scavengers have existed for … maybe a century. They move into ruined neighbourhoods, slums, anywhere nobody else wants to live or work, and reclaim. People have been doing it forever, but I guess they just started organizing during the Second Depression, in the eighties. (177, 180)

Although fleetingly evoked, this historical context points to the still ongoing real-world conflicts between a city government enamoured of property developers and the residents of the garment district, skid row and other communities/areas that also occupy the downtown.

Barnes’s LA differs from the real LA not just because of that Second Depression but also because the Big One finally hit.

It was easy to remember when there had been skyscrapers here. The Great Quake, and the even more ruinous firestorm that followed, had razed the city, sending businesses fleeing to the valleys and peripheral areas. Already decaying by the turn of the century, no one cared about central L.A. anymore. The slums remaining in the area were simply referred to as the Maze, and only the hopeless made it their home. (60)

[It] must have been a street, once. It was hard to tell, with the accumulated layers of trash and debris, shattered fragments of buildings, and the gut-punched wreckage of a bus, stripped of rubber and glass and most of its metal, only a framework of rust remaining. … The wreckage was incredible, as if an orgy of wholesale looting and vandalism had destroyed what little was left by the natural disasters of earthquake and fire. (108, 109)

The Maze is home to the Scavengers, a subterranean co-operative community developed from those earlier scavengers. They live in the ruins, including the secretly renovated PanAngeles Multiplex, ‘the largest underground living complex in the western hemisphere’ (177). And they have a semi-official government franchise to recover valuables and salvage materials from the ruins. The state sees them as ‘hoboes scratching at a trash heap’ (176) and have no idea how wealthy they have grown, how far their trade network reaches, how much their influence and range of alliances have grown.

The most depressing aspects of the trilogy is that by the start of Firedance, the Scavengers have themselves turned property developers, using ‘the leverage of property, money, and manpower, combined with generous grants and federal tax breaks’ to create ‘an empire’ (9). They have turned the Maze into Mazetown, a new and more ethnically diverse downtown – and ‘the label “Mazie” seemed less an insult than a celebration of an individual choice’ (17). The new population might have ‘skins tinted every color of the rainbow … cloaked in the raiment of a dozen lands’ (17), a dozen languages and a hundred dialects’ might fill ‘the streets’, and there might be a ‘thousand savory collations from around the world’ being sold by ‘ten thousand street vendors’ (33), but they also look and sound and smell of gentrification. As if capitalism somehow suddenly – and in LA of all places – dropped its racialising and racialised dynamics.

Works cited
Steven Barnes, Streetlethal. New York: Ace, 1983.
–. 
Gorgon Child. New York: Tor, 1989.
–. Firedance. New York: Tor, 1994.
Thomas Foster, The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Claire Sponsler, ‘Beyond the Ruins: The Geopolitics of Urban Decay and Cybernetic Play’. Science Fiction Studies 60 (1993): 251-265.