Afrocyberpunk 2: Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988), part one

BKTG17418If Gibson’s Neuromancer omits Africa and its peoples, including the diaspora, Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988) might seem like a step in the right direction, at least inasmuch as it spends one long section in Grenada and (after visiting Singapore) another in Mali (with a brief snatch of coda passing through Algeria to Morocco). Intended as – or at least praised for being – a more realistic take on a global cyberpunk future, the novel offers an improbable variant on that old saw attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek: it is easier for Sterling to imagine Americans happily giving up their guns than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The novel is set in the 2020s, after the ‘Abolition’ (of nuclear weapons and conventional small arms). Under a new world order (that is pretty much the old world order but with fewer issues of national sovereignty getting in the way of a liberal-ish neoliberal hegemony) dominated by the ‘developed world’ which at least makes a point of feeding the ‘developing world’, albeit on ‘scop’, a cheaply produced single cell protein – ‘the national food of the Third World’ (38). If no one is exactly racing home to enjoy their dinner, no one need go hungry any more. Except in Africa, where such ‘aid’ enables the unscrupulous to accumulate power.

And that’s the problem. The future in Sterling’s novel is of the demoralising, predatory kind projected by the futures industry. As Kodwo Eshun writes, in such projections, typically produced by NGOs and multinationals,

African social reality is overdetermined by intimidating global scenarios, doomsday economic projections, weather predictions, medical reports on AIDS, and life-expectancy forecasts, all of which predict decades of immiserization. … Within an economy that runs on SF capital and market futurism, Africa is always the zone of the absolute dystopia. There is always a reliable trade in market projections for Africa’s socioeconomic crises. (291-2)

Such projections usually propose corporate intervention – the extension and intensification of the market – as the only possible solution.

Sterling introduces his future Africa through precisely such a modelling tool, David’s Worldrun game,

a global simulation. Worldrun has been invented as a forecasting tool for development agencies, but a glamorized version had found its way onto the street. … Long strips of the Earth’s surface peeled by in a simulated satellite view. Cities glowed green with health or red with social disruption. Cryptic readouts raced across the bottom of the screen. Africa was a mess. ‘It’s always Africa, isn’t it?’ [Laura] said. (10)

Later, David explains to a Pole called Andrei Tarkovsky (!) that in the game,

Protein tech, like [scop], is one of your major tools for world stability. Without it, there are food riots, cities crumble, governments go down . . . And not just in Africa, either. (137)

The sense, implicit in this comment, of Africa’s desperate exceptionalism, that it is the benchmark against which to measure the extent to which you have escaped disaster, barbarism, backwardness is everywhere in the novel. Describing the wired world of 2020 – a passage which is quite endearingly clunky in so badly missing the extrapolative mark – Sterling notes (more or less focalised through Laura) that ‘Most of the world, even Africa, was wired for telex these days’ (22). Rizome, the multinational for which David and Laura work, has decided to ‘negotiate’ with the data havens; Emerson explains

‘That’s a modern solution. It worked for the arms race, after all. It has been working for the Third World.’
‘Except for Africa,’ David said. (45)

After the lodge David and Laura run near Galveston is attacked, the mayor, Magruder, objects that terrorism ‘isn’t supposed to come down any more. … Maybe in Africa. … Not here.’ (70-71). The spook sent by Vienna (a metonym for the international conventions/agencies keeping the new world order in order) to investigate the attack muses about all ‘of those millions and millions of unfired NATO bullets … Too many even for the African market, eh?’ (77) – a point reiterated when Laura, in a Malian jail, overhears an execution:

They would often shoot a single man with five or six machine guns; their ammunition was old, with a lot of duds that tended to choke up the guns. They had a worldful of ammunition, though. All the ammunition of fifty years of the Cold War had ended up here in African war zones. Along with the rest of the junk. (355)

When Laura speaks obliquely about the attack to a mercenary, saying ‘I saw a man killed by a machine gun, once’, he replies ‘Oh, really? You’ve been to Africa?’ (270). Later, on the rogue nuclear sub that takes her to Mali, another mercenary tells her the story of how he ‘ended up in Africa’:

‘Africa,’ Laura repeated. The very sound of it scared her. (331)

There has also been a devastating AIDS-like retrovirus, spread by horny sailors and ‘harbor hookers’:

But the world had the virus pretty much whipped now. Contained anyway. Under control.
Except in Africa. (334)

When Laura demands that her accidental rescuer Gresham helps Katje, a ‘dying woman’, he replies: ‘You’re in Africa now. Dying women aren’t rare here.’ (382)

Lying behind all the globetrotting shenanigans is a group called FACT (not the Federation Against Copyright Theft, but the Free Army of Counter-Terrorism) who have effectively taken over Mali and are at war with Azania (as South Africa is now called). FACT not only have a nuclear sub, but have tested one of their warheads in the desert and are – with the collusion of an embroiled Vienna – contemplating using it in the war. Laura and Katje were being taken to the test-site to appear in a propaganda video about this nuclear capacity when Gresham and his Tuareg warriors attacked the convoy in which they were prisoners. Fleeing with her unintentional rescuers through the Sahara, Laura eventually looks around her:

Time passed, and the heat mounted sullenly as the miles passed. They were leaving the deep Sahara and crossing country with something more akin to soil. This had been grazing land once – they passed the mummies of dead cattle, ancient bone stick-puppets in cracked rags of leather.
She had never realised the scale of the African disaster. It was continental, plantery. They had travelled hundreds of miles without glimpsing another human being, without seeing anything but a few wheeling birds and the tracks of lizards. She’d though Gresham was being cavalier, deliberately brutal, but she understood now how truly little he must care for FACT and their weaponry. They lived here, it was their home. Atomic bombardment could hardly have made it worse. It would only make more of it. (386-387)

There is more to say about Islands in the Net, and I will do so. But for the moment, let that stand as its futures-industry-style representation of Africa: atomic bombardment could hardly have made it worse.

Works cited
Kodwo Eshun, ‘Further Considerations of Afrofuturism’. CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003), 287-302.
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net. London: Legend, 1989.

Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way (2002; trans 2013)

51zqAenL6DL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Calixthe Beyala, born in Cameroon in 1961 and resident in France since 1978, is generally counted as one of the second generation of African Francophone female writers – a judgment that is not merely to do with when she started publishing fiction (the 1990s) but also a reflection upon her typically feisty, feminist, vulgar subject matter and her eschewal of standard French in favour of a Parisian-African vernacular (not that I can tell, being monolingual). For all that she has won a number of major literary awards, there is a lot of critical commentary (mainly by men, at least from the sample I have been able to access online) that portrays her as, in various ways, not a proper writer. And I guess there are what some might consider improprieties in this novel, but I found them interesting and/or enjoyable rather than shocking or somehow disqualifying.

How to Cook Your Husband the African Way begins with what appears to be a fantastical premiss, with the black protagonist/narrator Aissatou explaining that at some point she became white:

My roots are black. I’m a black woman, but being away from my roots has confused me. Let me be honest. I embraced dissipation. I abandoned myself to it as you abandon yourself to a heavy fog. … I don’t know when I turned from ebony to ivory, but I do know that I smear my hair with a product called White Glow. Guess what it does?

I am, as I said, not sure when I became white. I now smear my skin with Venus de Milo and other cosmetics made for whites. That isn’t the end of it, though. Because to be white you’ve got to be thin. I’ve tortured my body to make it as small as possible. So now, I don’t have any breasts and my thighs are flat geometries – all because the mirror of the world requires that I make my body pleasing to white men. A beautiful woman is flat as a pancake, thin as a rake or a slice of Melba toast. Melba toast snaps easily. Crickle crackle. (7)

However, as soon becomes clear (and is already hinted at in the full version of the quoted paragraphs), this fantastical transformation should not be read literally. This is not like George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) or Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man (1970). It is a moment of hyperbole that captures a certain truth of double-consciousness, of a black woman’s conformity to white standards of beauty, of her willed bodily transformation and the abandonment of African aspects of her cultural heritage it entailed:

I am a white negro woman and food poisons my powers of seduction. I make my body sing by peeling my buttocks, by minimizing my breasts, convinced that if I make a martyr of my stomach, I’ll win a great prize. The pores of my trim body will exude divine sensuality. (15)

And apparently, where white Parisian men are concerned, they do. Which is of no help whatsoever when she falls in love/desire/passion with the Malian Suleiman Bolobolo, the new tenant in her building, who lives with his senile mother, who keeps a chicken in their apartment and who thinks she is in contact with the inhabitants of planet Oburne.

Aissatou’s initial approach to winning Bolobolo is to follow her white consciousness:

Rainbows appeared in the sky to answer women’s need to seduce. When a woman wants to seduce a man, she must smell sweet and glitter. Which is why we visit the lingerie shops when we’re in love. The modern knicker is available in all the glorious colours of the universe. These are consolations the gods have granted us to make up for the fact that we are mortal. (28)

But she realises that she is both ‘in Paris and not in Paris’, bilocated between ‘the African jungle’ and ‘a different jungle, the metro’ (33). And although she cannot ‘be bothered’ (40) to return to or embrace some half-remembered/half-invented version of négritude or africanicity, she can follow the advice she imagines her mother would give:  cook for him, cook African meals that awaken his senses and sensuality, and thus capture his heart (and loins).

And in between each short chapter, there is a recipe or two – for meals as varied as paprika ngombo, boa in banana leaves, domba de macabe, mango puree on toast, and crocodile in tchobi sauce.

The novel tacks a course somewhere between essentialism and cultural constructivism, using the later to undermine the former even as it tend to rely on the former to explore notions of identity and hybridity. The tone throughout is a little bit raunchy – or at least blunt about sex – without ever being pornographic (a charge often levelled against Beyala). And while it is never laugh-out-loud funny, it is always comical.

Time heals all wounds though it doesn’t really wound all heels. If only. (9)

Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (2008; trans 2014)

9781927428658.Cover_-450x650Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the Angolan Ondjaki is one of those books I picked up for the Speculative Africas project because it sounded like it might be sf. It isn’t. At least not in any straighforward sense. But it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and there is something fantastical about it. And it features the astonishing mausoleum of António Agostinho Neto, which I have become mildly obsessed with since seeing photos of it in Kiluanji Kia Henda Icarus 13 installation.

The novel is set sometime in the early 1980s: Reagan is in power in the US; Jackie Chan’s The Big Brawl has reached Angola; and the mausoleum-of-agostinhomausoleum of Angola’s first president is under construction. (In reality, it ground to a halt because Neto’s successor, Jonas Savimbi, was a member of UNITA, backed by South Africa, rather than of Neto’s Soviet- and Cuban-backed MPLA. (There was a third-side in the post-independence civil war, the Mobutu-backed FNLA.) During Savimbi’s thirty year reign, he saw no reason to support its completion, and the possibility of further Soviet financing collapsed with the end of the Cold War. When the MPLA regained power in 2008, they used oil revenue to complete the structure on a much less grand scale than initially planned, and it was inaugurated in 2012, on the ninetieth anniversary of Neto’s birth. (See, I told you, mildly obsessed. Back to the book.))

It starts with an explosion in the sky over polyglot Bishop’s Beach, next to the mausoleum’s constructions site, that

woke up even the birds asleep in the trees and the dozy fish in the sea. Colours came out that had never been seen before: yellow mixed with red pretending to be orange in a bluish green, flares that mimicked the strength of the stars reclining in the sky and a warlike rumble of the kind made by the MiG planes. In the end it was a beautiful explosion that lingered in the noises of the pretty colours that our eyes looked upon and never again forgot. (9)

This is the first of several synaesthetic prefigurations – where colours and sounds get jumbled, as do birds, fish, kites and stars – in the initially episodic account of everyday life in the Bishop Beach. The cast of characters include the young protagonist’s several abuelas (Granma nineteen is not his nineteenth Granma – when Dr Rafael KnockKnock amputates her toe, she is left with nineteen digits and a new nickname); his friends Charlita and 3.14, whose real name, Pinduca, was first shortened to Pi; Comrade Gas Jockey, who faithfully, if lethargically, mans the local petrol station even though there is never any petrol; Sea Foam, who is more mad than wise, but sometimes it seems the other way around; and Soviet Comrade Gudafterov, really called Bilhardov, who is in charge of the blue lobsters, as the children call the Russian troops, and who longs to return to his snowy homeland. All of these characters have stories, and Ondjaki laces his story with glimpses of this much-storied world:

Granma Agnette … sang the music of slow Fado tunes, adapted to put us to sleep, and nobody slept. She told crazy stories about her friend Carmen Fernández who had become pregnant, but had given birth to a huge bag of ants that bit the inside of her stomach. The second time she got pregnant she finally had a baby, but it had the head and wings of a bird and, as the window was open, it flew away and escaped. Granma said that Carmen Fernández was afraid of becoming pregnant a third time, but even then we didn’t fall asleep. Then Granma started with her threats. (26)

When the young protagonist learns that Bishop Beach is going to be demolished, their houses ‘dexploded’, to make way for the elaborate grounds around the base of the mausoleum, he and 3.14 decide their only course of action is to beat the builders to it – they must steal dynamite from the construction site and blow up the mausoleum instead.

This slender narrative is made delightful by comical encounters and episodes; a bittersweet treatment of the civil war, which the children do not quite get; a romance which they do not quite perceive, either; by references to Brazilian soap operas and popular movies; and by a linguistic playfulness in which ‘gangrene’ can be misheard as ‘gangrenades’ and Sea Foam can persuasively argue that the sky is occasionally lit up by ‘fouling stars’:

a phenomena of the skies of the dark universe, the cosmic dust and so on… there are two skies: the blue sky that belongs to our eyes and to the wings of planes and little birds. And then there’s a black sky that’s as big as a desert. … Fouling stars melted in the heat of the sun and that’s why they fall towards planet world. Our planet is the only one that has water where they can cool down again. They’re fouling stars, and one day, after cooling off, I swear, those stars are going to want to return home … We’re still going to see those stars rise up from the earth to way up there, in the skies that sleep far away dressed in bright brightnesses… (12)

Needless to day, it offers an alternative explanation as to why work on the mausoleum stopped in the early eighties. A happier, if not entirely happy, one. And it is appropriate that such poetry surrounds the mausoleum of a president who was once a poet, even if he is not actually buried there.

 

Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction

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From May 5 to July 1 2012, the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, UK, was home to “Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction,” an exhibition curated by Nav Haq and Al Cameron. Exemplifying a recent trend for artists to view the continent through science-fictional lenses, it includes work by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva (Portugal), Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola), Luis Dourado (Portugal), Mark Aerial Waller (UK), Neïl Beloufa (France), Neill Blomkamp (South Africa/Canada), Omer Fast (Israel/Germany), Paweł Althamer (Poland), Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya), and Bassam El Baroni, Jeremy Beaudry and Nav Haq (Egypy/US/UK).

Some of the short films on display – Kahui’s Pumzi (2009), set in a water-scarce future Africa, and Blompkamp’s Tetra Val (2004) and Alive in Joburg (2005), the latter of which was hothoused into District 9 (2009) – might already be familiar to SFS readers. Of them all, though, the most intriguing is Omer Fast’s Nostalgia (2009), consisting of three parts, each of them continuously looped in an individually dedicated room.

Nostalgia I is a four-and-half minute HD video: in a forest, a white man in camouflage fatigues builds a trap from branches and twine; on the soundtrack, a former Nigerian child soldier talks about his childhood and how a surrogate father figure taught him how to make a partridge trap from branches and twine.

Nostalgia II runs for ten minutes on two synchronized HD screens: on the left, the former child soldier, now a man; on the right, Omer Fast. The interview subject does not seem to understand the artist’s questions, and although he describes the partridge trap his father taught him to build from sticks and twine, the artist grows skeptical of the subject’s inability to provide specific detail about growing up in Nigeria. And, depending on when you join the film, it sooner or later becomes clear that both men are actors, the interview a reconstruction.

The thirty-two minute Nostalgia III, shot on 16mm and transferred to HD, contains eight scenes, with several momentary flashforwards (or, depending on when you join the film, flashbacks). The setting, loosely sketched in passing hints, is an Africa faced with the problem of illegal immigration from Europe (it is unclear whether this is an alternative present or a future after European civilization has collapsed, but everyone dresses like they are from seventies Britain or from a seventies British adventure television series). Nostalgia III alternates scenes from two stories. One follows three British illegal immigrants, who meet their fate in secret tunnels under the African security perimeter. It is a linear narrative, albeit with two scenes actually occurring simultaneously, but the second story is a closed loop. In each scene, one character describes how to make a trap out of sticks and twine, and in the next scene, a character who has heard this information recounts it as first-hand knowledge – A tells B, B tells C, C tells D, D tells A, A tells B, and so on.

While fascinating, Nostalgia is also a little troubling. Its spiraling narrativization, and concomitant destabilization of experience, marginalizes a specific Nigerian voice, transforming his life into an art-commodity. But it is not as troubling as Blomkamp’s shorts, which contain all the problems of District 9 in embryonic form; or as Althamer’s Common Task: Mali, a photographic record of an “encounter” with Dogon villagers that reeks of colonial appropriation and the touristic gaze.

imagesThe other highlight is Kia Henda’s Icarus 13 (2008), an installation recounting the first African space mission – an endeavour every bit as foolish as the one in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006). Launched from Angola, Icarus 13 landed on the surface of the sun – at night, so as to avoid deadly heat – and successfully returned to Earth with ‘some particles from the photosphere’ for laboratory study. The six-hundred-word account of the mission covering one wall culminates in the observation that ‘from the description given by the astronauts, the Sun has the most beautiful night’, before announcing upcoming tourist flights to finance further scientific investigations. There are also a tabletop architect’s model of Icarus 13 on the launch-pad, and eight photographs. The first photograph shows Icarus 13, rising in the centre of the frame, viewed from Luanda, with a vast open sky above and beyond it. The rocket, though, is actually the mausoleum of António Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president – its base resembles the flared rockets of a Soyuz launch vehicle, while its jagged pinnacle looks like a prototype for London’s The Shard. Other striking buildings are similarly repurposed: a domed structure is labeled “Astronomy Observatory, Namibe Desert,” despite its obvious lack of astronomical equipment, and a low, flat building whose obliquely angled walls might suggest, from above, a star shape, is described as a “Centre of astronomy and astronaut training, Namibe Desert,” although in reality it is a cinema. A medium shot of five construction workers is captioned “Building the spaceship Icarus 13,” while a yellow torus against a dark background is “First picture of the Sun’s photosphere from Icarus 13 in orbit.” The final photograph, labeled “The return of the astronauts,” prises open the gap between image and caption even further by containing nothing to which the caption could actually apply. It is a gap that frustrates, and which calls for the viewer to inflate it with story – just as Kia Henda fills the frustrating gap between the dream of independence and the nightmares of civil war and post-colonial dependence, between socialist aspiration and neo-liberal hegemony, with myth, tall tale, humour and hope.

Among related events at the Arnolfini, Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck), Rehan Hyder (UWE) and I ran a workshop, “Martians of Africa,” on the relationship between sf and colonialism, asking what would happen if one considered such anti-colonial and post-colonial films as Les statues meurent aussi (Marker and Resnais France 1953) and La Noire de… (Sembene Senegal/France 1966) as works of sf. The exhibition’s run came to a close with a double bill of Africa Paradis (Amoussou Benin/France 2006) and Les Saignantes (Bekolo Cameroon/France 2005).

(Blompkamp’s short films, Gusmão and Paiva’s The Shadow Man (2006-7), and almost all of Beloufa’s Kempinski (2007) are available on youtube. The text of El Baroni, Beaudry and Haq’s second ARPANET dialogue – a fake conversation between Samir Amin, Steve Biko, Francis Fukuyama and Minoru Yamasaki, which would not have seemed out of place in Moorcock’s New Worlds – can be found here.

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 118 (2012), 559–61.

Afrocyberpunk 1: The enervated ghosts of Zion

In the South Atlantic Quarterly interviews most famous for coining the term ‘Afrofuturism’, Mark Dery asks Samuel Delany why, in a recent piece on William Gibson’s Neuromancer called ‘Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?’, he did not comment on the representation of the Rastas on the Zion space station.

Dery sees them as bricoleurs offering a quite utopian potential for imagining a harmonious relationship with technology. Delany schools him on how ‘a black reader’ might respond to these marginal, withered figures, concluding

You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing representation of a powerless and wholly non-oppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction: but maybe that’s just a black thang… (751)

Delany promptly steps back from the ad hominem aspect of this to praise Gibson and Neuromancer’s achievements. And to point out that while the three pages or so devoted to Zion and its inhabitants are problematic, there are far more problematic (Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold) and interesting (Disch’s Camp Concentration) white authored sf novels to deal with, let alone the sf produced by black writers – himself, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes. (He also argues that the dry-run for the Rastas – the Lo-Teks of Gibson’s ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ – are ‘Gibson’s real romantic bricoleurs: they were not specifically black, but rather “fourth world” whites’ (753).)

But there is something interesting about Gibson’s Rastas. In a globe-trotting (and cislunar-trotting) novel, they are the only black people mentioned. In a novel depicting a globalised future in which capitalism has consolidated its hold on the planet, and in which the quality of a commodity is indicated either by its make and model or by reference to its country of origin, there are no corporations or trade names of African origin, and not a single mention of Africa or any of the countries in Africa.

Those enervated orbital ghosts – brittle-boned from calcium deficiency, their hearts ‘shrunken’ from so much time in low-gravity, their Rastafarianism reduced to a Rasta lifestyle of ganja and dub, and their dub easily replicated by computers – are all that are left. A spectral remnant of yet another world-building genocide.

At least in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, we learn in passing that the Nazis are in the closing stages of a continent-wide final solution to the ‘problem’ of Africans. It is a cold comfort, but at least he doesn’t just leave them out.

***

I am currently re-reading a bunch of cyberpunk novels, some of them for the first time in twenty years, as background for an essay I am writing this winter on Afrocyberpunk film (Les Saignantes, Bedwin Hacker, Tetra Vaal, Adicolor Yellow, Alive in Joburg, Tempbot, perhaps Crumbs if I can ever get hold of a copy, perhaps Africa Paradis).

The focus of this reading is on the representation of Africa/Africans/Afrodiaspora in cyberpunk, and cyberpunk by African and Afrodiasporic writers, and I will inflict my thoughts/notes on the world here when I can. My provisional reading list is below, though I cannot promise to get to them all. Please point out the things I’ve overlooked.  (And do we ever find out whether the Effinger novels are set in North Africa? Or are they in the Middle East? (And yes, I know they are ‘really’ set in New Orleans.))

Steven Barnes, Streetlethal (1983)
–. Gorgon Child (1989)
–. Firedance (1994)
Lauren Beukes, Moxyland (2008)
–. Zoo City (2010)
George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Fails (1987)
–. A Fire in the Sun (1989)
–. The Exile Kiss (1991)
–. Budayeen Nights (2003)
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade (2001)
–. Effendi (2002)
–. Felaheen (2005)
Andrea Hairston, Mindscape (2006)
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs (2009)
B Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimoto Wars (1992)
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988)
G. Willow Wilson, Cairo (2007)
–. Alif, the Unseen (2012)
plus various stores from Afro-Sf, Lagos 2060, omenana and other collections/sites

Afrocyberpunk 2

 

 

Khairy Shalaby, The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets (1991; trans 2010)

51BDxwqGg+LThis is a slippery one.

On the one hand, there is the depth of my ignorance of Egyptian history and Arab cultures (which is considerably more profound than anything I am about to say here). On the other, there is – unless something is lost (or added) in translation – a playful author who likes to keep his reader in a state of constant uncertainty.

In the opening paragraph, Ibn Shalaby is invited by the Fatimid caliph Mu‘izz to break the Ramadan fast – the first ever in the new city of Cairo. The second paragraph tells how he first met Mu‘izz in Qayrawan some years earlier, and how several centuries later he met the British historian of Cairo, Stanley Lane-Pool – they immediately recognised each other but it takes them a moment to recall that it was in Mu‘izz’s court in Qayrawan. In the third paragraph, they go to drink tea and smoke a pipe together so that in the fourth paragraph Lane-Pool can outline some Egyptian history before disappearing in the fifth paragraph so as to stiff Ibn Shalaby with the bill. When he tries to do a runner he timeslips into an earlier and unfamiliar version of the city, where he recognises Maqrizi, a 13th/14th century historian – only it soon transpires that the Mamluk-era author of the famous Topography is also capable of timeslipping, since the year is 358 AH (969 AD). Which means Ibn Shalaby is actually on time for the founding of Cairo, after all – as are other timeslipped historical figures, such as the historian Ibn Taghribirdi and the novelist Naguib Mahfouz.

And so the novel unfurls, a concatenation of comic incidents and episodes, many of which are interrupted by timeslips (both unintended and deliberate), constantly looping around and back and through the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, with an occasional return to the 1990s. It is not always clear when or where we are, and even when Ibn Shalaby looks at his watch that tells him the date, you cannot always be certain how soon before he notes the new date that he timeslipped. At one point, even he confesses that ‘because of all my bouncing around in history, I tended to confuse one period with another’ (121) – and he’s the narrator!

Eventually this all settles down for a stretch when Ibn Shalaby finds himself stuck in the early 740s AH (1340s AD). He tries the well-worn time-traveller’s trick of trying to impress the locals with modern technology, which works until his batteries run flat. He flees the court and takes shelter in the Storehouse of Banners, which rapidly grows into an alternative state (of cannibals, prisoners of war, barbarians) within the Caliphate. And then, as one would expect of such a hapless, venal, opportunistic – above all, flexible – comic protagonists, he soon finds himself working for both sides against the other. This flexibility further destabilises the narrative by unfixing the protagonist-narrator, but it is also essential to the often-bleak comedy. When approached by someone self-evidently contemptuous of him, Ibn Shalaby

put on [his] own expression of arrogant contempt – the one [he] had picked up from the pictures of American politicians [he] saw in the papers every day. (45)

When a Persian guard in 380 AH (990 AD) fails to defer to the authority signified by the briefcase Ibn Shalaby carries – why would he, not knowing what it is? – the protagonist notes his surprise that ‘American industry had lost its magic touch’ and makes

a mental note to report the incident to the Arab opposition papers so they could use it as an example of the disappointing performance of foreign imports. (42)

The slipperiness of historical settings is held together by a strong sense that complicated, competing and largely pointless bureaucracies will establish themselves anywhere and anytime, given half a chance. That position is always precarious. That behind any façade of governance you will always find brutal, self-serving thugs. That, in the words of emir Khazaal,

Power is like sea monsters, or perfume: it rises to the surface sooner or later. (144)

And that it always pays

to side with the strong against the weak, [because] there’s no such thing as justice except among the strong – and even then, only when one of the strong slips up for a moment. (85)

This jaded view of humanity and of Egyptian history and life, this combination of bitterness, resignation and loss, fills the best lines in the novel:

News travels as fast as you can fill an Egyptian street with victims of abuse. (116)

and

Patience isn’t the only virtue we have in Egypt. It’s not just the ability to endure pain and suffering, it’s the ability to endure the remedy. (43)

***

The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets is not the first African time-travel story.

The earliest African sf I have yet found is a time-travel novel, Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s A Period of Time, which began newspaper serialisation in Misbah al-Sharq/Light of the East in 1898, was published in book form in 1907 and saw a sequel in 1927 (it has just been translated and published in its entirety for the first time, and I should be reviewing it later this year).

Salam Musa’s Khimi (1926) time-travels into a soulless future (apparently – it is not translated as far as I can discover), as more or less does Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s Ahl al-kahf/Sleepers in the Cave (1933; translated 1989), which I have not yet read.

And there is the 1998 movie Risala ila al-wali, which seems similar to the French comedy Les Visiteurs (Poiré 1993), but I have yet to unearth a subtitled version.

Oh, and the full title of Khairy Shalaby’s novel is The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets. A Narrative Comprising Events to Dazzle and Astound, Meditations to Divert and Confound, Histories to Edify and Incidents to Horrify. By the Pen of God’s Neediest Creature, the Knowing but Unlearned, the Tutored by Unwise Ibn Shalby, the Hanafi and Egyptian, The Seller of Pickles and Sweets. May God Guard Us from His Ignorance, Amen!

Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots (2008)

9780141031521It takes a while to get your head around the generic cues and fictional world of this comical and fantastical neo-slave narrative. It flickers between an alternate history and (race) role-reversal satire, each seeming to conflict with the other. A long succession of gags about Africanised London place names – gags which are not particularly funny (such as Mayfah, Paddinto, Golda’s Green, Brixtane and, settled by Chinese seamen, To Ten Ha Ma) but which ultimately pay off with a geological reference to the Essex massif – clashes with a growing certainty that this Londolo is not in the country called England. And so you turn back to the map in the front-matter and everything becomes clear.

Blonde Roots is not a role-reversal narrative in which everything stays the same apart from race relations, as in, say, Desmond Nakano’s 1995 film, White Man’s Burden. Nor is it an alternate history like, say, Steven Barnes’ Insh’Allah novels (2002–3), in which some not-unreasonable extrapolation underpins a relatively rigorously worked-out world dominated by an Islamic Africa for two millennia, and in which Europeans are the victims of an alternative Triangular Trade, abducted and sold into slavery in Bilalistan (as North America is called).

No, what that map reveals is an alternative terrestrial geography.

An island shaped like Britain (unaccompanied by Ireland), but perhaps larger and called the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa spans the equator off the western coast of north Africa, which is also located further south than in our world. It is not quite clear what has happened to the rest of Africa since it is squeezed off the edge of the map by a Europe, here called Europa, displaced to the south of the Gulf of Guinea. England and Wales, but not Scotland, are wedged into the gap between this relocated northwest Europe and Scandinavia.

While it is entertaining to imagine a seasoned sf pro labouring to establish some geophysical perturbation causing this alternative dispersal of the Pangaea supercontinent, and in turn leading to this inverted social order, that is not where Bernadine Evaristo’s interests lie – nor is doing so as much fun as reading the novel itself.

A comedy about slavery is no easy thing to pull off, as the disastrously misogynist and not terribly funny French timeslip comedy Case départ (2011), directed by Lional Steketee and its co-starring co-writers Fabrice Eboué and Thomas N’Gijol, demonstrates. But it is by no means impossible. Ishmael Reed manages it (more or less) in Flight to Canada (1976), as does Charles Johnson (less than more) in Middle Passage (1990).

From the outset, Blonde Roots has some nice comic touches – in its world, the West Indies are called the ‘West Japanese Islands … because when the “great” explorer and adventurer, Chinua Chikwuemeka, was trying to find a new route to Asia, he mistook those islands for the legendary isles of Japan, and the name stuck’ (5) – but sometimes the comedy sits a little uneasily. For example, the protagonist, Doris Snagglethorpe, abducted from the Cabbage Coast (i.e., Yorkshire), transported to Great Ambossa, sold into slavery and renamed Omorenomwara, is branded with the initials of her owner, Kaga Konata Katamba, and his daughter, her first mistress, Panyin Ige Ghika.

Omorenomwara, who hates Panyin, no doubt gets the PIG half the joke, but the KKK half – and the entire joke, if a white slave being branded KKK PIG is a joke – only works for the reader.

Role reversals and inversions come thick and fast to begin with – monogamy is condemned by the polygamous Ambossans as ‘uneconomical, selfish, typically hypocritical and just plain backwards’ (19); house slaves are known as ‘wiggers’ (24); prosperous Ambrossan urban centres are known as ‘Chocolate Cities’ and ‘the tumbledown ghettos on the outskirts’ where ‘free whytes’ live in ‘squalor’ are called ‘Vanilla Suburbs’ (29) – but as the world is established and the narrative begins to come together, the comedy becomes less gag-oriented and  Evaristo expands her comic vision to capture also the pain and tragedy. Misgivings fade.

The novel switches between three strands: Omorenomwara’s present, as she attempts to flee on the Underground Railroad but ends up exiled to a West Japanese sugar plantation and must try to make some kind of life for herself there; Omorenomwara’s memories of her life as Doris and of her years as a house wigger; and an autobiographical pamphlet by Kaga Konata Katamba which includes his justifications for enslaving the self-evidently inferior Caucasians.

Families and lovers long separated by the slave system reunite, sometimes only fleetingly, and a sense of community thrives among brutalised slaves because they are dependent on each other. And in this final section of the novel, Evaristo gets the tone perfect. She reproduces that tired old cliché of slaves singing together in the fields, but makes it clear they do so out of mutual care and to support each other, not because they are happy. She shows them singing on command to welcome their visiting owner, and counterpoints it with them singing for themselves. And she includes the eleven-year-old slave Dingiswayo, ‘strutt[ing] about the quarter in a pair of outsized, hand-me-down cotton pants worn so that the waist hung (somehow) beneath his bum’ (204).

There is always a danger with role-reversal satire that the reader or viewer’s sense of injustice will be aroused for the wrong reason. Not by patriarchy and misogyny, but because men are being treated like women. Not by slavery and racism, but because people of pallor are being treated like people of colour. Blonde Roots’ fractured structure of narrators and temporalities helps it to avoid this pitfall, but for me there was something else, something curious, going on.

I kept forgetting that the slave characters were white.

I suppose this is because the novel mostly uses their Ambossan slave names, rather than their European names; and because so much of the cultural imagery around slavery features enslaved Africans; and because, being a novel rather than a film, there was an absence of concrete visual detail to fix their appearance.

Then every few pages I was brought up short as I remembered, as this potent anamnesis – this remembering of things forgotten – swept over me.

I have no idea whether the novel will work in this way for other people, and I have yet to figure out what it means. But it was powerful and disorientating. The way a good book should affect you.

African Science Fiction 101: update

This is really just a note listing some of the African sf that has been published since I wrote ‘African Science Fiction 101’ – and some of the books I just plain missed when I researched it. Hopefully, this summer I will have time to read them… 51BDxwqGg+L

Dr Satan’s Echo Chamber – double issue (12/13) of Chimurenga (2008). An all-faxion issue on black technologies no longer secret, plus 13 associated documents. Copies still available.

Khairy Shalaby, Travels of the Pickle and Sweet Vendor (1991; trans 2010). Egyptian timeslip narrative, which seems to have a different title on the cover than in the listings where I found it, and my copy is still in the post, so this mystery will remain temporarily unresolved…

Iain S. Thomas, Intentional Dissonance (2012). Post-apocalyptic dystopia by South African author.

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (2013). Debut fantasy novel written in South Sudan by a remarkable American short-story writer of Somali and Swiss/German heritage.

Rachel Zadok, Sister-Sister (2013). A road-trip through an apocalyptic alternative (or near-future) South Africa.

Chibundu Onuzo, The Spider King’s Daughter (2013). This keeps being recommended to me – but I cannot find any reference to it containing fantastical elements (despite the title), so I guess I should read it and then either replace this explanation or cut it from this list… 0987019872.02.LZZZZZZZ

Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun (2014). Solid collection of ten short stories playing across distinctions between sf and fantasy, modernity and tradition, superstition and indigenous knowledges, by the Ugandan author and filmmaker. I think this is the first single-author collection of African sf.

Nerine Dorman, ed., Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa (2015). Anthology of nineteen stories – the third to come out of Short Story Day Africa’s annual competition – at the more literary end of genre. Only a couple of duds in it. (I should have a review of it – and the previous entry – forthcoming soon.)

Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix (2015). Prequel to Who Fears Death.

In terms of short fiction, issue three of Omenana has just come out, and the second volume of Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers is imminent. There is also forthcoming this year an anthology called Imagine Africa 500, which apparently will contain ten sf stories by writers from Malawi and ten from writers from other African countries.

Crumbs (Miguel Llansó Ethiopia/Spain/Finland 2015) is currently doing the rounds of film festivals before, hopefully, a wider arthouse and DVD release. According to imdb, ‘Our figurine sized supermen hero embarks on an epic surreal journey that will take him across the Ethiopian post apocalyptic landscape in search of a way to get on the hovering spacecraft that for years has become a landmark in the skies’.

In ‘Africa SF 101’, I mentioned A Beast in View (1969), by exiled anti-Apartheid activist Peter Dreyer, and Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981), set in a near-future in which resistance to Apartheid is becoming open revolution. 752297331.0.mWhat I missed completely were a number of novels by South Africans anticipating the end of Apartheid, ranging from the earnest to the satirical to the trashy: Anthony Delius, The Day Natal Took Off (1960) Gary Allighan, Verwoerd – the End (1961) Andrew McCoy, The Insurrectionist (1979) Frank Graves, African Chess (1990; recently revised and reissued).

There are several similar novels from outside of Africa: Iain Findlay, The Azanian Assignment (1978) – the only novel by this Australian author 51TPVFXnAWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Randall Robinson, The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay (1978) – looks like a further example of the American cycle of ‘Black Power Sf’, but with the revolution displaced from the US

Larry Bond, Vortex (1981) – about the size of a housebrick, and just as smart; as well as a dramatis personae, it has a glossary giving details of all the different weapons and weapons systems it mentions

In other news, ‘African Science Fiction 101’ has been translated in two parts for the website of the World Chinese Science Fiction Association, China’s largest association for science fiction practitioners and fans. If you want to see it, go here and here.

Update 2

George S Schuyler’s Black No More. Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

9781555537753_p0_v1_s260x420First edition: New York: Macaulay, 1931
Edition used: New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969

Frequently praised by HL Mencken as

the most competent Negro journalist […] the most competent editorial writer now in practice in this great free Republic[1]

Schuyler has been largely neglected in histories of sf, partly because of the difficulty of penetrating his pseudonyms (including Samuel I Brooks, Rachel Call, Edgecombe Wright), partly because sf constitutes only a tiny fraction of his massive output, partly because he was published outside of the regular pulp venues, and partly because his politics were somewhat at odds with genre norms. So, for example, his novellas ‘The Black Internationale’ and ‘Black Empire’ (1936–38; later collected as Black Empire), which depict a conspiracy of black professionals manipulating national and international politics to reclaim Africa as a black homeland, did not appear in Amazing or Astounding but in the Pittsburgh Courier – not a publication to which sf historians would necessarily think to turn.

The neglect of Black No More, first published in book form at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance in 1931 (when sf books were few and far between), is perhaps harder to explain, although it would not have been promoted as sf and many might have found its dedication off-putting:

THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO ALL CAUCASIANS IN THE GREAT REPUBLIC WHO CAN TRACE THEIR ANCESTRY BACK TEN GENERATIONS AND CONFIDENTLY ASSERT THAT THERE ARE NO BLACK LEAVES, TWIGS, LIMBS OR BRANCHES ON THEIR FAMILY TREES.

When, on New Year’s Eve 1933, Max Disher is spurned by a white woman at the Honky Tonk Club, he decides to take Dr Junius Crookman’s revolutionary BLACK-NO-MORE treatment to turn him white. Adopting the name Matthew Fisher, he returns to his hometown of Atlanta in pursuit of her. There, pretending to be an anthropologist, he takes up with the Reverend Henry Givens, an ex-officer of the Ku Klux Klan, who is starting up the Knights of Nordica, an organisation of

White Men and Women […] Fight[ing] for White Race Integrity. (60)

41DHqZxFNMLTo Max’s delight, the white woman turns out to be Givens’ daughter, Helen. Fearing Max’s growing popularity in his rapidly expanding organisation, Givens is happy to see them married. Meanwhile, Max has been joined by his newly-whitened friend Bunny Brown, and together they make the Knights of Nordica into a major political power, effectively taking over the Anglo-Saxon Association and the Democratic Party. As the black population of America disappears, the central plank of the Knights election strategy is to demand compulsory genealogical testing and race-based social stratification. Crookman and his associates join forces with the Republicans to keep open the BLACK-NO-MORE centres and lying-in hospitals (where any baby born black is turned white so as to avoid social embarrassment). On the eve of the election, Dr Buggerie’s genealogical research – which suggests that if there were as few as one thousand African-Americans who could

pass for white […] fifteen generations ago […] their descendants now number close to fifty million souls (197)

– is stolen, and published in the newspapers:

 DEMOCRATIC LEADERS PROVED OF NEGRO DESCENT
Givens, Snobbcraft, Buggerie, Kretin and Others
of Negro Ancestry, According to Old
Records Unearthed by Them. (210)

Max, Bunny and their loved ones manage to escape. Buggerie and Snobbcraft are not so fortunate. Fleeing though Mississippi in blackface disguise, they are nearly lynched; only after they have proven who they are and that they are white, do the newspapers arrive…

Schuyler_BlackNoMore_CollierBlack No More is a remarkable work of satire, as sprightly and as timely now as when it was written. Its great strength lies in its dyspeptic vision of the absurdity of racism and the hypocrisy with which race is used as a means of obtaining and maintaining power, wealth and influence by some people regardless of colour. This latter is at its most pointed in the sequence in which Max blackmails Blickdoff and Hortzenboff, the owners of Paradise Mill in South Carolina, into paying him to break the imminent strike – a feat he then achieves by seeming to side with the workers, most of them Knights of Nordica who wish to unionise, while hinting that among them are probably some whitened blacks who are constitutionally incapable of not betraying the strike:

Rumor was wafted abroad that the whole idea of a strike was a trick of smart niggers in the North who were in the pay of the Pope. The erstwhile class conscious workers became terror striken by the specter of black blood. You couldn’t, they said, be sure of anybody any more, and it was better to leave things as they were than to take a chance of being led by some nigger. If the colored gentry coudn’t sit in the movies and ride in trains with white folks, it wasn’t right for them to be organizing and leading white folks. (134)

Once the strike is over, the mill owners

took immediate steps to make their workers more satisfied with their pay, their jobs and their little home town. They built a swimming pool, a tennis court, shower baths and a playground for their employees but neglected to shorten their work time so these improvements could be enjoyed. They announced that they would give each worker a bonus of a whole day’s pay at Christmas time, hereafter, and a week’s vacation each year to every employee who had been with them more than ten years. There were no such employees, of course, but the mill hands were overjoyed with their victory. (136)

Because Schuyler’s satire is so wide-ranging, because he treats leaders as cynical manipulators and followers as dupes, because none of his characters seem capable of good or pure motives, it would be easy to label Black No More misanthropic. However, to do so would be to misintepret a comic vision that finds so much humour in venality because those who think they are acting in their own self-interest so frequently are not. Such a perspective produces the kind of absurdism which defines Black No More and which reaches its pinnacle in the last few pages – a few years after the events the novel recounts, it is discovered that those who underwent the BLACK-NO-MORE treatment are in fact lighter in colour than ‘white’ people; consequently, in the desire not to be taken for blacks, people begin to darken their skin colour to look like whites…

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[1] Both quotations can be found in Schuyler, Black Empire (Boston: Northeaatern University Press, 1991), p.312, n.15.

Anatole France’s Thaïs

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

5869549609_55f2afb282First published: 1890
Edition used: Thaïs (London: John Lane, 1920) translated by Robert B Douglas

Some time during the late Roman Empire, Paphnutius, the Abbot of Antinoë, an ascetic hermit living on the banks of the Nile, while recalling his sinful life before his conversion, remembers Thaïs, a beautiful and promiscuous actress who had once

almost led [him] into the sins of the flesh. (10)

dfda453a37d468531b3e72219b93bd4bHe takes it upon himself to save her. He traces her to Alexandria, converts her from her life of sin and takes her to live in a religious sisterhood. On returning home, he begins to be haunted by visions of Thaïs and by demonic little jackals. Seeking respite, he sets out on a pilgrimage, finds a pillar in the desert and takes up residence atop it. Pilgrims flock to see him, miracles are performed, and the city of Stylopolis grows up around the pillar. Paphnutius believes he is on a holy mission to take on the sins and sufferings of others – until he realises that Satan has tempted him into pride. He flees, is haunted by demons and falls into the sins of lust and Arian heresy. Hearing that Thaïs is dying, he rushes to her side. She dies a saint, but his sins and torments have altered him so much that when the chorus of chanting virgins see his face, they run away, terrified, crying:

‘A vampire! A vampire!’
He had become so repulsive, that passing his hand over his face, he felt his own hideousness. (234)

Although it does take particular pleasure in its anticlericalism, Thaïs is a remarkable attack not just on Christian asceticism but also upon the self-sustaining systems we develop to explain the world and our place in it. Like Voltaire’s Candide, it holds up to ridicule Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason, when Nicias argues from observing two baskets of olives that

‘For man, who only sees a part of things, evil is evil; for God who understands all things, evil is good’

to which Eucrites responds

‘The world is a tragedy by an excellent poet. God, who composed it, has intended each of us to play a part in it. If he wills that you shall be a beggar, a prince, or a cripple, make the best of the part assigned you’. (129)

But this is just one of many targets.

Others include those who appeal to textual authority or unduly venerate antiquity: Hermodorus argues that

there is no such thing as a good form of government, and that we shall never discover one, because the Greeks, who had so many excellent ideas, were never able to find one. … all hope of ultimate success is taken from us. Unmistakable signs show that the world is about to fall into ignorance and barbarism. (124)

And when Thaïs claims that Paphnutius

knows the truth

Nicias replies,

‘I know the truths. He knows but one, I know them all. I am superior to him in that respect, but to tell the truth, it doesn’t make me any prouder nor any happier’. (160)

The radical scepticism of the stranger Paphnutius encounters en route to Alexandria, who argues that

‘there is no such thing as a good or evil life. Nothing is itself either virtuous or shameful, just or unjust, pleasant or painful, good or bad. It is our opinion which gives those qualities to things, as salt gives savour to meat’ (23)

is echoed by Nicias, who informs Paphnutius that

‘Good and evil exist only in the opinion. The wise man has only custom and usage to guide him in his acts. I conform with all the prejudices which prevail at Alexandria. That is why I pass for an honest man’. (39-40)

When she was just 11 years old, Thaïs realised that

no one can be good in this world except at cost of the most terrible suffering

and became

afraid to be good, for her delicate flesh could not bear pain. (76)

FrankPape_Thais_05_100As an adult, she greets the world without scepticism, believing in everything (84) – a position every bit as subversive as believing in nothing.

Between these epistemological poles, Paphnutius’s moral certainty is consistently undermined. Travelling through the desert, he spies a plover caught in a hunter’s net; her mate tears an opening in the net for her to escape:

The holy man watched this incident, and as, by virtue of his holiness, he easily comprehended the mystic sense of all occurrences, he knew that the captive bird was no other than Thaïs, caught in the snares of sin, and that – like the plover that cut the hempen threads with its beak – he could, by pronouncing the word of power, break the invisible bonds by which Thaïs was held in sin. Therefore, he praised God, and was confirmed in his first resolution. But then seeing the plover caught by the feet, and hampered by the net it had broken, he fell into uncertainty again. (16-7)

Paphnutius’s judgement is repeatedly called into question, as when he joins in Dorion’s misogyny, blaming women for the arousing sexual feelings in men (50); and his unconscious and self-deceiving motivations become increasingly clear to the reader as, observing Thaïs’s suffering as he leads her through the desert, he does not feel

any of the pity which softens the hearts of the profane [but rejoice[s] at these propitiatory sufferings of the flesh which had so sinned. So infuriated was he with holy zeal that he would have liked to cut with rods the body that had preserved its beauty as a shining witness to its infamy. (164)

This psychosexual dimension is wittily reiterated and simultaneously problematised as an explanatory framework when Lucius Aurelius Cotta enquires of the stylitic Paphnutius,

‘Has this column any phallic signification in your mind?’ (198)

The willingness to believe, and the influence of certain ideological determinants or conceptual systems on what one is prepared to believe, are foregrounded when Palemon tells of a monastery whose inhabitants are divided into groups by letters of the alphabet, where

a certain analogy is observed between the character of the monks and the shape of the letter by which they are designated, and that, for example, those who are placed under Z have a tortuous character, whilst those under I have an upright mind. (181)

Likewise, when the story of Cotta’s attempt to question Paphnutius is recounted:

The story of this meeting was embroidered with wonderful details, which those who invented were the first to believe. … And, the miracle being public and notorious, the deacons of the principal churches of Libya recorded it amongst the authentic facts. (200)

imagesDespite the seeming clarity of these quoted passages, Thaïs remains a rather ambiguous text, a careful balancing out of different voices, none of which can be taken to coincide with its author, teetering on the brink of meaning. But lest any belated postmodernists lurk nearby, waiting to rush in to claim France as a precursor, it is worth remembering a lesson that Nicias offers Thaïs. Throwing down a ‘treatise on morals’ composed by ‘the gravest of stoics’ (88) he had been reading while awaiting her return, he takes her in his arms, explaining:

Yes, when I had before my eyes the line in which it is written, ‘Nothing should deter you from improving your mind,’ I read, ‘The kisses of Thaïs are warmer than fire, and sweeter than honey.’ That is how a philosopher reads the books of other philosophers … It is true that, as long as we are what we are, we shall never find anything but our own thoughts in the thoughts of others, and that all of us are somewhat inclined to read books as I have read this one. (89)

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X