You’ll never guess what arrived in the post today

sk1You probably think getting hold of an old omnibus of Edmond Hamilton’s Star Kings books is not much of an accomplishment. Nothing to boast about.

But you are wrong.

Here, in full, is the epic story of an improbable quest. All it lacks are those certain elements you need to market a film successfully: suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, happy endings, especially happy endings.

Call me Bibliophile. Some months ago –  never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would order a copy of Edmond Hamilton’s Chronicles of the Star Kings. Reading old space operas is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get me some Hamilton or Williamson or early Simak, some Brackett, perhaps, or some Moore, even some Dickson or early Brunner, as soon as I can.

Why Chronicles of the Star Kings? I was working on something tangentially related so it seemed an ideal opportunity to pick up the cheapest copy I could find of this omnibus volume that I repeatedly looked at on the shelf but never bought back in my teens (I was having too much fun devouring all the Philip E. High published in the same series). So I checked amazon marketplace sellers and abebooks. Amazon was way cheaper so I ordered a copy. Little did I suspect I  was merely ordering my first copy.

The parcel arrived on 11 September. My eager little hands tore it open and found inside:
sk2Now, I have nothing against East End Sagas, whether gripping – as it claims – or not. But it was not what I wanted. So I set the returns process in motion and requested they replace it with the book I ordered. They acted with unexpected promptness, dispatching a replacement the same day. Of course, instead of replacing it with a copy of Chronicles of the Star Kings, they replaced it with a copy of Carol Rivers’s gripping East End saga Lizzie of Langley Street.

So I set the returns process in motion again, advised them of the glitch in their inventory system, requested a refund and checked for the next cheapest copy. Which again was from amazon. I ordered it, and waited.

And waited; and waited.

Then a week or so later got an email telling me it had been damaged in the post and returned to the seller. They could not provide me with another copy so gave me a refund.

I checked for the next cheapest copy. Which again was from amazon. And this time was next day delivery. I ordered it, and waited.

But nothing happened.

I left it an extra day but still nothing happened.

I checked the online tracking. Apparently it had been delivered.

Only it hadn’t.

A trip to the local sorting office ensued. The guy there explained that he could not search for the parcel without the notification card I had been left by the postman. Only I hadn’t been left a notification card, which is so unlike Colin, my lovely postman, that I knew something was rotten in the state of Denmark. (Rottenness! thy name is Barry, the lazy substitute postman! But I’m getting ahead of myself.) The best the guy could offer to do was organise a redelivery, and hope that would magic my parcel into being.

The mention of Colin’s name, however, prompted the woman behind the desk to leap into action. Colin would not make that kind of mistake. She asked if I had the tracking number – I did – and after a couple of minutes on the computer was able to confirm that indeed my parcel was lost in some peculiar back-eddy of the postal system. She went to check out back to see if the parcel was there – it wasn’t, but even if it had been, she wouldn’t have been able to hand it over since I did not have a notification card. “I’ll have a word with Colin when he gets in,” she said. “He’ll know what happened.”

A brief aside on Colin. He has been my postman since I moved here fifteen years ago, and somehow he has survived the deliberate sabotaging of the post office by successive governments – running down its services, forcing them to deliver mail below cost for the private carriers competing with them for business, prioritising business deliveries over private mail, etc, etc –  as they sought to privatise it, which they eventually achieved a few years ago, since when £500,000 per day has been paid out in dividends to hedge funds and city shareholders. Somehow, through all this, Colin has retained a sense of the role of the postman in the community, as part of the glue that holds a place and its people together. We are not just streets and doors and letterboxes to him. In this, he reminds me of my milkman grandad. Unlike lazy Barry.

Later that morning, Colin knocks on my door.

“Oh,” he says, ‘it was Wednesday. Barry did the route on Wednesday. He’s dead lazy. If it’s not at the sorting office, he’s left it with a neighbour. Won’t be any more than two houses away. I’ve got a couple of packages, so I’ll ask at those houses. If I have no luck, I’ll catch up with him later, and come back after my shift to tell you what he did with it.”

That’s Colin for you.

No way he needs to come back after his shift; he can let me know tomorrow. In the meantime, once I’ve finished my coffee, I’ll knock on some neighbours’ doors.

Colin was right. It was with a neighbour two doors down. I sought out Colin to let him know. Went home. Poured another cup of coffee and opened my parcel. To find within it a copy of:

sk2

So the glitch in the inventory was definitely an amazon problem, not an individual seller’s problem. I begin the returns process, ask for a refund, and this time inform amazon rather than merely the seller of the problem. And by good fortune, a couple of cheaper copies of Chronicles of the Star Kings have appeared on abebooks, so I order one.

And nothing happens.

Except the last amazon marketplace seller tells me to not bother returning Carol Rivers’s gripping East End saga Lizzie of Langley Street – and in addition to refunding me, they will try to locate a copy of Chronicles of the Star Kings in their warehouse for me, free of charge, for all the comical inconvenience to which I have been put. So for a moment there it looks like I might end up with three books in total, rather than the single one I first ordered back in the mists of time, around the dawn of man.

But phew! they can’t find a copy.

But I don’t fucking believe this! my parcel containing – at last, I hope – Chronicles of the Star Kings has been damaged in the post and returned to the abebooks seller, who arrange a refund as they do not have a replacement copy in stock.

Back to abebooks. A sixth attempt to buy this fucking book.

And today this arrives:

sk1The only problem is, I no longer have any fucking clue what I wanted it for in the first place.

So, no, despite appearances, not even a happy ending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the centre of Streetlethal is the Los Angeles downtown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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