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.

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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

 

 

China Miéville, The Scar (London: Macmillan, 2002)

200px-TheScar(1stEd)[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 86 (2002), 132–4]

The Scar returns to Perdido Street Station’s Bas Lag, but it is not a novel about return: it is about departure and loss. Part of that loss is the sense that the author, with his bold opening move of denying New Crobuzon, has learned all he can from Mervyn Peake; and consequently it wobbles, or seems to wobble, in the first 60 pages.

Peake has often been criticised for leaving Gormeghast in the final volume of his trilogy – a criticism with which Miéville does not necessarily agree but to which he has clearly paid attention. New Crobuzon, that brilliant invention and potential albatross, does not appear in The Scar. For the reader wanting a consolatory return, New Crobuzon has become like M. John Harrison’s Egnaro; indeed, an alternative title for the novel might have been ‘A Young Man’s Journey to New Crobuzon’. Miéville is too ambitious to serve up just more of the same, and that is why the novel wobbles at the start (or seems to: I am not exempt from wanting consolation), why the world seems a little thin to begin with, why the visit to Salkrikaltor City seems skimped, curtailed. The opening pages reek of impatience. Like the protagonist Bellis Coldwine, the author needs to depart, to move on, and through her he transforms his refusal to return to New Crobuzon into part of his thematic complex about a mature regard for the universe and the compassionate identification with others that it demands of ethico-political beings.

Which is not to say that those pages are not full of the restless invention, exemplary prose and visualisation we have so quickly come to expect from Miéville. And even when Bas Lag does not seem as dense and filled as it might, there is still the sense of a dense, full world lurking out of sight, of whole other volumes that can only be hinted at. On the very first page we read that ‘Presences something between molluscs and deities squat patiently below eight miles of water’; and on the next page that ‘There is heroism and brute warfare on the ocean floor, unnoticed by land-dwellers. There are gods and catastrophes’. But that is all we are told.

Forced to flee New Crobuzon, Bellis (a former lover of Perdido’s Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin) plans to settle for a while in the colony of Nova Esperium, but her journey is interrupted, diverted, hi-jacked. She finds herself caught up in the plans of the Lovers, the sado-masochistic and megalomaniac rulers of Armada, and in the conspiracies and counter-conspiracies of Silas Fennec (aka Simon Fench), a secret agent, and Uther Doul, the Lovers’ right-hand man. She witness scab-mettlers fight in the mortu crutt style and displays of stamp-fighting; she walks upon Machinery Beach; she eavesdrops upon the Lovers sexualised scarifications; she is courted by Doul and hears him play the Perhapsadian; she learns about oceanic megafauna, the Ghosthead Empire and possibility mining. And she is used, and punished, and used some more.

But that is a mere fraction. There is the magnitude of the Lovers’ hubristic designs for Armada; the resistance of the Brucolac, the ab-dead vampir ruler of Dry Fall; the grindylows’ pursuit of Fennec; the story of Crawfoot and the Conch Assassins; the Remaking of Tanner Sack; Bastard John, the dolphin; the education of Shekel and his romance with the Remade Angevine; the peculiar adventure of the cactacae Hedrigall; awkward friendships and alliances; there is a none-too-secret message hidden in the open, an extraordinarily bad pun (471) involving the Maguffin which drives one strand of the action, and an obscure joke about the author’s doctoral thesis (417–21), which he was completing alongside the novel. There are moments of great tenderness (Bellis teaching Shekel to read; Sack repairing Angevine’s boiler) and tremendous set-pieces (the attack of the she-anophelii; the Brucolac’s revolt and punishment; breaking into the Compass Factory; Hedrigall’s vision). And there is the anxiety of influence, manifested in numerous allusions to The Matrix (a character called Carrianne, Uther Doul’s sword-fighting in bullet-time) and to other nautical fantasies (the Aronnax Lab, the Pinchermarn, Tintinnabulum, Captain Princip Cecasan of the Morning Walker, a godwhale). There are various echoes of Bruce Sterling’s Involution Ocean and a game of pitch and toss borrowed from Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard.

And, most importantly, there is a sustained critique of colonialism. The anophelii, isolated and under military guard, are remorselessly exploited by the Samheri cactacae, their access to information tightly circumscribed and their intellectual labours expropriated without reward. There are questions about who are the real slaves and who are the real pirates. There is a clear-headed explication of the mercantile motivation of exploration, and a revelation that changes our perspective on the grindylow. There is Machinery Beach, a complex image of ruination and potential, of the colonised world as both dumping ground and source of commodities:

Some way off were shapes she had taken to be boulders, huge things the size of rooms, breking up the shoreline. They were engines. Squat and enormous and coated with rust and verdigris, long-forgotten appliances for unknown purposes, their pistons seized by age and salt.
There were smaller rocks too, and Bellis saw that these were shards of the larger machines, bolts and pipework junctions; or finer, more intricate and complete pieces, gauges and glass work and compact steampower engines. The pebbles were gears, cogs, flywheels, bolts and screws … thousands of minuscule ratchets and gearwheels and ossified springs, like the innards of inconceivably tiny clocks. … The beach was an imitation, a found-sculpture mimicking nature in the materials of the junkyard. Every atom from some shattered machine. … She imagined the seafloor around the bay – reclaimed reef of decaying industry, the contents of a city’s factories allowed to collapse, pounded by waves and sun, oxidizing, bleeding with rust, breaking into their constituent parts and then into smaller shards, thrown back by the water onto the island’s edge, evolving into this freakish shore. … This is the flotsam Hedrigall meant, she realized. This is a graveyard of dead devices. There must be millions of secrets mouldering here into rust-dust. They must sift through it, and scrub it clean, and offer the most promising bits for trade, two or three pieces picked randomly from a thousand piece-puzzle. Opaque and impenetrable, but if you could put it together, if you could make sense of it, what might you have? (274-5)

And most of all there is the Lovers’ plan for Armada, in which they convince and cajole many to believe, regardless of its tremendous environmental and human consequences, because it might just bring wealth and power.

The Scar represents a further maturation of Miéville as a writer. If the novel lacks some of the profligacy which made Perdido Street Station such a joy it is made up for by a more disciplined approach to narrative and tighter control over intertextual riffs. His emotional and affective range has expanded, without abandoning the eyeball-kicks.

The Scar is the best nautical fantasy since John Calvin Batchelor’s The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica and the most important one since B Traven’s The Death Ship.

It is arguably the first major novel of the anti-capitalist movement, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it makes Moby Dick look like a big fat book about whales.

 

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (Macmillan 2000)

PerdidoStreetStation(1stEd)[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 79 (2000), 88–90. Which I think makes it the first thing on China to appear in an academic journal. Yay me!]

Vivid as a comic book, Miéville’s King Rat (1998), with its funky London and splendid conceit, and its passages of grace, charm and glee, was one of the most assured fantasy debuts of the 1990s. Like the bass beneath the treble, its narrative momentum and crafter prose danced the enchanted reader past the slipperiness of plot logic and duration. His second novel, Perdido Street Station, dwarfs King Rat – in words, weight, ambition, invention, accomplishment. It is a garuda to the former’s wyrman, and eagle to its flying monkey. Let me explain.

North of Myrshock, Shankell, Perrick Nigh and the Mandrake Islands; north-east of the Cacatopic Stain and the Shards; east of Bered Kai Nev, the Swollen Ocean, Gnur Kett and the Jheshull Islands; at the confluence of the rivers Tar and Canker, where they become the Gross tar: there lies the city of New Crobuzon, magnificent and squalid, powerful and corrupt, home to humans and others. A mysterious figure approaches. Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, outcast scientist and corpulent dilettante, receives an unusual commission, as does his khepri partner, a renegade spit-artist. And so connections begin. Evil, irresponsibly cultivated, is accidentally unleashed. A company – neither quite a Seven Samurai nor a Dirty Dozen – gathers, although they do not all meet. Things emerge: winged rippers, artificial intelligence, the dancing mad god, class consciousness. Chaos theory is transmuted into crisis science. Dirigibles and aerostats criss-cross the troubled sky. The identity of a serial killer is slyly revealed. A vigilante steps in when it counts. Decisions, ethical and otherwise, are taken. People change and changed. Some die. All suffer.

The story told is a familiar one, yet different. It grips and exhausts. The birds, spiders, sewers, rooftops and hybrids of King Rat reappear exfoliated, as do the city’s alternative architectures, the shared worlds existing within but different from the built environment. The appetite for language that occasionally strained the earlier novel has grown to remarkable proportions but is disciplined by the clarity and efficiency of Miéville’s tempered prose; he delineates characters and settings with precision and compassion, building layers of texture rather than ornamentation. Some have suggested that New Crobuzon itself is the novel’s main achievement, but it is difficult to separate city from novel. Their fabric is intertwined and full of echoes: Gormenghast and Viriconium are here, and Cinnabar, Cirque, Dhalgren, Lankhmar, Malacia. London, too, both steampunk and contemporary; and where the lived music of King Rat captured coming-of-age in the late 1980s and 1990s, Perdido Street Station evokes the dark days of Thatcher, Major and Blair. Amid the ghettos and squalor, poverty and the appearance of difference are used as tools of state oppression. Secretive paramilitary forces who police ‘by decentralised fear’ (269) brutally suppress a strike and redefine it as a riot. Government, big business and organised crime are in cahoots. Military funding perverts scientific research and education. A suffrage lottery preserves privilege, and evil resides in a dome built on rubble-strewn wasteground.

Comparisons to Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison are inevitable – Miéville acknowledges them both and even sneaks in ‘a storm of wings’ (159) – so here are some others. Miéville’s obsessive invention rivals William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and, like Neal Stephenson, he wants to tell use everything (but for more important reasons). He writes with the compassion of Philip K. Dick at his best but without his misogyny and crude moral certainty. His gorgeous, tainted images match those of Elizabeth Hand, Storm Constantine and Poppy Z. Brite, but without the cloying atmosphere or swamping effect on narrative that sometimes mars their work. He depicts and art-world as well-realised as Misha’s, but more concrete and lacking in preciosity. He places the maimings and torments one expects to find only in Tim Powers within a political and ethical rather than mythopoeic framework. And he writes better prose than any of them.

He also mock the anxieties of sf’s ‘scientific’ patter and hand-waving, essays political doggerel and children’s songs, pastiches political journalism, satirises Judaeo-Christian despite for women, lampoons academic doublespeak, nods to Jonathan Swift and Ursula Le Guin, canonises the Jabberwocky – and still that is not all.

In King Rat, when the protagonist, Saul, briefly takes up with Deborah, a young homeless woman, he instructs himself not to patronise her but to treat her as a real person; and because the London Saul has come to inhabit is a fantastical one, this passage, with its conscious effort to bridge between textual and extratextual worlds, seems clumsy, a touch too didactic. Noentheless, it provides an important key to understanding the ethical fiction is attempting to construct. Similar moments, lacking in overt trans-diegetical moves and more smoothly executed, occur in Perdido Street Station: a brothel full of Remade whores and an act of betrayal offer mutual understanding; a trip to a freakshow, undertaken after some ninety pages of astonishments, refuses to conjure still more fabulous grotesques but instead portrays degradation, misanthropy and complacency. The nature of Perdido Street Station is such that it cannot gain King Rat’s purchase, however, awkward, on the extratextual world. Instead, these ethical and empathic moments occur within networks of interconnection. The key metaphor is provided by Isaac’s crisis science, which sees through consensual reality to the perpetual moment of crisis, to a precarious potential energy with which to drive revolutionary engines. It is, therefore, no coincidence that it is the striking vodyanoi dockers whose watercræft draws, albeit unconsciously, on this power. There are connections, Miéville insists, and in those connections, in shated being, there is hopeful energy; and, as Isaac, disgusted by the attitudes of other people at the freakshow, is reminded by a radical friend, ‘It turns … It turns quickly’ (88).

Of course the novel has flaws – some might find the Alien movies cast too large a shadow, or that Isaac’s mourning seems skimped (but not without reason), or that Miéville cares too much about his characters (whatever the hell that means), or that the reader is left as battered and drained as the company – but make no mistake: Perdido Street Station is the rich hallucinogenic dreamshit of genre, mutating into socialist fiction.

Wake up and smell the ordure.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt (London: HarperCollins, 2002)

[A version of this review originally appeared in Foundation 86 (2002), 134-36]

the-years-of-rice-and-saltBold Bardash, a Mongol horseman in the army of Temur the Lame, crosses through the Moravian Gate and onto the Magyar Plain, and there finds Europe dead, victim of a plague that has killed nearly everyone on the continent. Forced to flee Temur, he heads south to the Mediterranean, where he is captured and sold into slavery. As he sails east to China, he befriends the teenage Kyu, a fellow slave. Various adventures see them become members of the Yongle Emperor’s household, travelling between Nanjing and Beijing. But things end badly, and a tenth of the way through the novel they are dead.

Reunited in bardo, the afterlife, they await rebirth. Bold, Kyu, I-li and several other characters are members of a karmic jati, and when they reincarnate, their lives will again intertwine.

The opening book, ‘Awake to Emptiness’, establishes the basic pattern for the following nine, each of which is written in a slightly different style. For example, ‘Awake to Emptiness’ imitates aspects of Wu Ch’êng-ên’s The Journey to the West, with passages of incidental verse, and narrative hooks at the end of each chapter:

One of the sailors happily names it: ‘Alexandria!’ Bold had heard the name, though he knew nothing about it. Neither do we; but to find out more, you can read the next chapter (23)

whereas Book Six, ‘Widow Kang’, contains marginal commentary, a sometimes sarcastic scholarly exegesis of unfamiliar terminology which also hints at the meaning of the novel’s title (372).

Each book is set in a different period of the seven hundred years following the death of Europe, producing an alternative history centred on Asia, but also including North Africa, colonised Europe, and a North America in which the native American Hodenosaunee League occupies the central region between Chinese invaders on the West Coast and Muslim invaders on the East Coast (one of the novel’s tributes to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle; there are also a couple of references to Tagomi-san). Later books trace the spread of Islam, the temporary establishment of an Islamic utopia, an attempted Chinese invasion of Japan, the discovery of the New World, a revolution in bardo, the birth of empirical science, the establishment of the Hodenosaunee League, attempts at religious co-existence, the industrialisation of warfare and a 70-year long world war, and the gradual development of a world-wide League based on mutual interdependence and responsibility.

Previously, Robinson has deployed various conceits to ensure continuity of viewpoint over a long historical span – such as the Mars trilogy’s anti-agathic drugs, which extend the lives of key members of the First Hundred – or in alternative versions of the same world. In The Years of Rice and Salt, he achieves the latter by doing precisely what Clute suggests he did in the Orange County trilogy, using the same characters under new names (Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction 1015); and to assist the reader in following them through their multiple incarnations, he uses a naming device ascribed to ‘the Samarqandi anthologist Old Red Ink’ (649). However, as the novel progresses, reincarnation starts to be treated by the characters as a useful metaphor which needs to be reconceptualised in secular terms: humans live again through our children; when we are remembered or when, unremembered, we nonetheless affect the way people behave; when broken down into atoms, ‘we are diffusely reincarnate throughout the universe’ (664). Most importantly, reincarnation can be achieved by thinking of the species as the organism. It lives on, with history or language or DNA as its consciousness and, as Bao Xinhua says,

if we think of it that way, then it might increase feelings of solidarity and obligation to others. It makes it clearer that if there is a part of the body that is suffering, and if at the same time another part commandeers the mouth and laughs and proclaims that everything is really fine … then we understand more clearly that this creature-species or species-creature is insane, and cannot face its own sickness-unto-death. Seen in that sense, more people might understand that the organism must try to keep itself healthy throughout its whole body. (665)

Ultimately, The Years of Rice and Salt tells us not just that other worlds are possible, but that another world is possible.

One of the basic attractions of the alternative history for both reader and writer is the puzzle element: what was the initial moment of divergence from the historical record? For example, the pervasive anachronism in Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine is commonly said to stem from Babbage’s success at transforming his designs for mechanical computers into working machines; but as this could not happen without advances in metals technology and engineering, the authors alter economic, social and political circumstances by positing a revolution in which a coalition of workers, scientists and capitalists overthrew the Duke of Wellington around 1830. Byron’s leadership of this pro-industrial faction is in turn attributed to his wife’s decision in 1815 to stay with him despite his peccadilloes. This event has typically been described as the point of divergence for The Difference Engine, yet there are hints of at least one earlier change to the historical record: the successful establishment by Wordsworth and Coleridge of the Pantisocracy, a utopian community, in North America (that was really proposed by Coleridge and Southey in the 1790s). Did their absence from the British literary scene mean that Romanticism failed to take hold, leading to political rather than poetical careers for both Byron and the Luddite leader, Shelley? Are there even earlier divergences?

This puzzle aspect of the alternative history points to the form’s dependence on a shared epistemic base: we know that the Spanish Armada, the South and the Nazis did not win that vampires do not exist (Roberts’s Pavane, Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, Deighton’s SS-GB, Stableford’s The Empire of Fear, respectively), and, to take an example from Robinson, that America did drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima (‘The Lucky Strike’). Alternative histories then work by establishing how the world created by the alteration differs from our own. This is the other aspect of the shared epistemic base: the reader must be familiar with the historical record that is being changed.

In The Years of Rice and Salt, Robinson offers a magnificent misprision of the form. He has created an intricate alternative history of cultures whose real-world history is largely excluded from Western mass education. This is a profoundly political act, and one which could not be more timely as ignorance of Islamic cultures forms the basis of the stereotyping which is used to justify slaughter of Afghan civilians, oppression of Palestinians and genocidal sanctions on Iraq. Throughout the novel Robinson draws multiple perspectives on the many strands of Islam and the variety of Chinese and Japanese cultures. Sometimes these cultures seem to match stereotypes all too common in the real world – Islam as viciously repressive, the Chinese as yellow peril – but Robinson’s world is too vast and complex to allow these views to go unchallenged. For example, Islam is mourned as a religion with a more or less feminist and egalitarian core in the Quran that has been lost behind the hadith (later teachings which have rather more to do with the subjugation of the people and the maintenance of power); later, other muslims propose looking for what is most buddhist in their religion.

The structure of the novel enables Robinson to demonstrate once more his tremendous skill at novella-length writing, his marvellous economy in creating credible characters, his eye for many different landscapes, and his thematic complexity and coherence over both shorter and longer lengths. He remains a didactic writer, but the various discussions about politics and theories of history that appear throughout The Years and Rice of Salt are vital, integral and invigorating.

It is a work to be pondered, certainly, but more than that, to be savoured.