Jameson, serendipity and the Anthropocene unconscious of Joseph Conrad

lord_jim-leadSo there I was rereading Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act for the first time in twenty-odd years to help me firm up my theorisation of the Anthropocene unconscious, and Fred only blooming goes and quotes, albeit for different reasons, this passage from Conrad’s Lord Jim, which I have not read in thirty years:

Above the mass of sleepers, a faint and patient sigh at times floated, the exhalation of a troubled dream; and short metallic clangs bursting out suddenly in the depths of the ship, the harsh scrape of a shovel, the violent slam of a furnace-door, exploded brutally, as if the men handling the mysterious things below had their breasts full of fierce anger: while the slim high hull of the steamer went on evenly ahead, without a sway of her bare masts, cleaving continuously the great calm of the waters under the inaccessible serenity of the sky.

Next up, if I can sort out the clips, the Anthropocene unconscious of Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe. (No, I am not joking.)

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The City in Fiction and Film, week 19

scan0005Week 18

This week we entered the final block of the module, looking at the multicultural city. Our focus this week was fiction the experience of coming to England – and to London – as an emigrant from the Caribbean. We looked at extracts from Jean Rhys, George Lamming and Sam Selvon – and then ran out of time for VS Naipaul.

Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was born in Dominica; her father was a Welsh doctor, and her mother ‘third-generation creole’. She lived mostly in the UK from the age of 16; not a huge success at RADA, she became a demimondaine, a chorus girl, an artists’ model – which certainly informs the opening of Voyage in the Dark (1934), a novel in which Anna Morgan is relocated (by her indifferent stepmother) from the Caribbean to the UK after her father’s death. Anna becomes a chorus girl, and then a wealthy man’s mistress. After they break up, she slowly descends into poverty and ultimately nearly dies having an abortion. The novel’s title plays on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), reversing the direction of colonial exploration of a strange land; at the same time, Rhys displays her modernist credentials through passages of interior monologue that include flashbacks to Anna’s Caribbean childhood.

Our focus was on the first three pages of the novel, to see how England and the Caribbean were contrasted. A lot of this is achieved by appeals to the senses, and by mixing memories and imaginative recall into the different present. The Caribbeanis associated with ‘heat’ (and not the mere warmth of a fire or of bed clothes) and ‘light’ and exotic ‘purple’; England with ‘cold’ and ‘darkness’ and ‘grey’ – with Southsea’s grey streets and ‘grey stone promenade’ and ‘grey-brown or grey-green sea’. The Caribbean was rich with smells (frangipani, lime juice, cinammon, cloves, ginger, syrup, incense) as well as – and indicative of race/class distinctions there – the smell ‘of niggers and wood-smoke and salt fishcakes fried in lard’. It was a wide open space, with breezes off the land and sea. In contrast, the small towns Anna and her friend Maudie visit with their theatrical troupe are devoid of variety and ‘always looked so exactly alike’. Motion becomes stasis – ‘you were perpetually moving to another place which was perpetually the same’ – and the nearest to escape is an architecture that mocks you with the memory of transit: ‘rows of little houses with chimneys like the funnels of dummy steamers and smoke the same colour as the sky’ (so grey, I’m guessing). And the laundry hangs limply on the line ‘without moving, in the grey-yellow light’.

The theatrical troupe does bring a slight sense of the scandalous and exotic to dreary Southsea: the landlady initially mistakes the two chorus girls for prostitutes, and her opinion of them does not improve when they do not rise until after lunch-time, and Maudie swans around in a nightgown and a kimono that is, significantly and of course, torn.

Idling on the sofa, Anna reads Zola’s Nana. Its cover features a stout woman with a wine glass, dandling a little incongruously on ‘the knee of a bald-headed man in evening dress’. It is a cautionary foreshadowing. The incense of the Corpus Christi processions a few paragraphs earlier gives way to the image of a tree in the back garden which has been cut back so awkwardly it ‘looks like a man with stumps instead of arms and legs’. The body of Christ becomes an amputee, symbolically castrated. (The novel opens with a broadly Christian – and theatrical – image of death and rebirth: ‘It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again.’)

Anna is a bit ambivalent about the dirtiness of her ‘dirty book’, and Maudie, who here is Rhys’s mouthpiece, implies the intentions of her own semi-autobiographical novel: ‘it’s about a tart. … I bet you a man writing a book about a tart tells a lot of lies one way and another’.

Zola’s novel – or, at least, the idea of it – underscores Rhys’s complex blend of the exotic and the mundane, a constantly-breaking-down binary opposite that recurs in the fiction of Caribbean emigrants to Britain.

Next we turned to emigrants of the Windrush era. George Lamming (1927-) was born in Barbados of mixed African and English parentage. He taught in Port of Spain, Trinidad (1946-50) before emigrating to England, where he became a writer and a broadcaster on BBC Colonial Service. He became an academic in 1967, and subsequently worked at universities in Jamaica, US, Denmark, Tanzania and Australia.

We explored a long and rather curious section in his The Emigrants (1954). The novel follows a disparate group of Caribbean emigrants sailing to the UK; once in London, they slowly drift apart, but their lives intertwine and occasionally intersect. We looked at the end of the first, shorter part of the novel, after the ship has docked in Plymouth. Here, the wind is associated with Britain, but it is a ‘keen’ wind, bringing with it darks clouds, the threat of rain, and a coldness that has even the Devon locals constantly rubbing their hands together to stay warm.

Again, there is a sense of the colonial adventure narrative being inverted. The dockworkers

were bewildered by this exhibition of adventure, or ignorance, or plain suicide. For a while the movies seemed truer than they had vouched for, the story of men taking ship with their last resources and sailing into unknown lands in search of adventure and fortune and mystery. England had none of these things as far as they knew.

Although to emigrant, of course, England will at least have adventure and mystery – and fortune (if not fortunes) will have a hand in what befalls them, good or ill or indifferent.

The dockworkers conclude that the ‘archipelago of unutterable beauty’ they imagine the emigrants have come from has ‘bred lunatics’:

How could sane men leave the sun and the sea …, abandon the natural relaxation that might almost be a kind of permanent lethargy, to gamble their last coin on a voyage to England. England of all places.

In the next few lines, the emigrants are described as having ‘childish curiosity’ and behaving like ‘timid spaniels’. Which prompted a discussion as to where such imagery – Lamming attributing racist stereotypes of black people to white characters – comes from; while the power relations of race mean that Lamming cannot be being racist about whites her, is he prejudiced about them? Or does he share a class/race prejudice against Caribbeans of a lower class and educational level than himself? There is insufficient evidence in the extract to draw any firm conclusions, but we returned to some of these issues in relation to the Selvon extract.

After three pages of the roaming third-person narrative typical of the novel, it suddenly changes form into something closer to poetry or competing dramatic (and distracted) monologues. The train journey to Paddington is depicted through a cacophony of voices and thoughts, snatches of dialogue and musings, in dialects and pidgins and patois rarely attributable to any specific one of the characters encountered in the preceding hundred pages.

It is a remarkable passage, which gives a good sense of how strange England is. Sugar rationing and saccharine are as mystifying when you come from sugar plantations as the notion of tea without milk. As English beer. As terms of friendly familiarity and slang like ‘spade’. As the British obsession with newspapers and legalities and the football pools. As the English’s ignorance of the range and variety of the Caribbean – and their surprise that a citizen of the Commonwealth, formerly the Empire, should speak English better than the French do. As the billboards advertising cold cream and razor blades and ‘Hermivita’ and ‘dissecticide’.

This passage also ends with foreboding. The train comes to a stop. There is impenetrable smoke everywhere. Catastrophe is intimated.

But it is just the London smog:

Tell me, Tornado, tell me.
What, man, what?
When we get outta this smoke,
When we get outta this smoke, w’at happen next?
More smoke.

Next we turned to Sam Selvon (1923-94), my favourite of these writers and the one whose work I find hardest to talk about. He was born in Trinidad to East Indian parents – his father an emigrant from Madras, and his maternal grandfather was Scottish. He was a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian (1945-50). He emigrated to London and clerked in the Indian Embassy, then relocated to Canada in the 1970s.

Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) depicts roughly three years in the life of sundry emigrants in London, most centrally Moses Aloetta. He has been there a decade, achieved little beyond survival and is getting increasingly homesick for Trinidad. There is no overarching plot as such, just incidents that befall characters – and their tall tales and boasts – as they look for lodging, jobs, loans, sex and other pleasures. The third-person narration breaks new ground by being in the same creolised English that the characters use (and there is a remarkable stream-of-consciousness passage about the London summer).

The novel opens, of course, ‘one grim winter evening’. The cold will be a key feature of the novel’s opening as, in the most comical of the colonial inversions, the newly arrived Henry Oliver – aka Galahad – steps off the train at Waterloo wearing ‘a old grey tropical suit and a pair of watchekong and no overcoat or muffler or gloves or anything for the cold’.

For Moses, who has agreed to meet this stranger and get him started in London, there is a

kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet.

Selvon also comments on the English obsession with the newspapers (and radio), which they believe without question. And Moses has been here so long he has started to behave in the same way, albeit unknowingly – he considers the new arrivals to be ‘real hustlers, desperate … invading the country by the hundreds’, regurgitating the language of folk-devils and moral panics the British press are so accomplished at creating. There is a journalist at Waterloo, talking to the arrivals and taking pictures, and it is not entirely clear whether it is his copy or his editor’s revisions which produce yet another scare-mongering story about not just lone workers but now whole families arriving. And like all ‘English people [he] believe[s] that everybody who come from the West Indies come from Jamaica’.

This time it is Tanty, who has begrudgingly emigrated with her children and grandchildren, not baffled British dockworkers, who questions

Why all you leaving the country to go to England? Over there it is so cold that only white people does live there.

Indeed it is so cold that, Galahad says,

‘I find when I talk smoke coming out my mouth.’
‘Is so it is in this country,’ Moses say. ‘Sometimes the words freeze and you have to melt it to hear the talk’

The opening pages also give a sense of the housing discrimination and landlord-exploitation emigrants faced (and were, paradoxically, blamed for). Later in the novel, the intersections of race and class are elaborated upon when the narrator observes that ‘wherever in London that it have Working Class, there you will find a lot of spades’; and in one of the most moving passages in the book, Galahad, works out that it ‘Is not we that the people don’t like, … is the colour Black’, and begins to talk to the colour of his own skin as if it is somehow a separate and distinct entity.

We closed with a brief discussion of Basil Dearden’s 1951 film Pool of London. An Ealing crime thriller cum social melodrama (with moments of post-The Third Man expressionist lighting, of Humphrey Jennings/GPO-like poetic realism and of pre-Free Cinema procedural documentary), it is set around the Thames when London was still a freight port – and a city of wartime ruins. (One of the delights of the film is the skyline – you can actually see Nelson’s Column from the South Bank!)

Pool of London. seems intended to meet the call of Michael Balcon’s 1945 manifesto for British cinema ‘to offer “a complete picture of Britain”, which includes being ‘a leader in social reform in the defeat of social injustice and a champion of civil liberties’. It is dazzling sleight-of-hand. It features the first starring role for a black actor in British film since Paul Robeson’s films in the thirties. It is stolidly, agonisingly liberal and reasonable. And it sidesteps the contemporary story of immigration by showing only one black character, Johnny (Earl Cameron), who although he arrives by boat is not an immigrant.

Johnny works on a cargo vessel that treks back and forth between London and the continent. He is only ashore when his ship is in port, and has no intention of staying. He meets a nice white middle class girl and although they are drawn to each other, the nearest they come to touching is when the bus takes a corner too quickly (this is not Sapphire (Dearden 1959) or Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961)). He is restrained and respectful, and avoids confrontation on the odd occasion someone says something overtly racist. He loses control just once, when he has been steered into a dive bar – coincidentally the only place in the whole of London where we glimpse, momentarily, another black face – to be robbed.

And, most importantly, he leaves.

Week 20.

Recommended critical reading
Akbur, Riad. “The City as Imperial Centre: Imagining London in Two Caribbean Novels.” A Companion to the City. Ed.Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 65–74.
Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. London: Pan, 2003. See chapters 18–22.
Gilroy, Paul. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack:  The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. London: Hutchinson, 1987.
Kundnan, Arun. The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain. London: Pluto, 2007. See chapter 1, “Echoes of Empire.”
McLeod, John. Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis. London: Routledge, 2004.
MacPhee, Graham. Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Especially 40–51, 118–127.
Nava, Mica. “Gender and Racial Others in Postwar Britain.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 671–82.
Sivanandan, A. “From Resistance to Rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean Struggles in Britain.” A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance, London: Pluto Press, 1982.
Solomos, John. Race and Racism in Britain. 3rd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Chapter 3, “The Politics of Race and Immigration Since 1945.”

Recommended reading
The experience of Afrodiasporic migration to Britain is also captured in Buchi Emecheta’s In the Ditch (1972) and historical novels such as Caryl Phillips’s Final Passage (1985), Beryl Gilroy’s In Praise of Love and Children (1996) and Andrea Levy’s Every Light in the House is Burnin’ (1994) and Small Island (2004).
Sympathetic treatment by a white British author can be found in Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades (1957); his Absolute Beginners (1959) culminates in the 1958 Notting Hill race riots.
The classic Arabic text of emigrating to Britain is the Sudanese Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966).
The Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s Black Docker (1956) is a semi-autobiographical account of his years in France.

Recommended viewing
The Nine Muses (Akomfrah 2010) is an intriguing account of post-war emigration from the Caribbean and India to Britain. The BBC documentary Windrush is a more detailed, conventional account of West Indian emigration to Britain.
Pool of London is one of several films to address Windrush-era migration of Afro-Caribbeans, along with Sapphire (Dearden 1959), Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961), A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1961), The L-Shaped Room (Forbes 1962) and To Sir, With Love (Clavell 1967). Absolute Beginners (Temple 1986), adapted from MacInnes’s novel, is also of interest.
Earlier, the African-American singer Paul Robeson starred in several British films, including Big Fella (Wills 1937) and The Proud Valley (Tennyson 1940).
The first feature film by a black British filmmaker is Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), co-written by Sam Selvon.
Sembène’s 1966 La Noire de…/Black Girl, adapted from his story ‘The Promised Land’, depicts a migrant Senegalese worker in France. Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961) is about Native Americans who have had to migrate within the US to Los Angeles. El Norte (Nava 1983) and Sin Nombre (Fukunaga 2009) follow Latin Americans migrating to the US. The Brother from Another Planet (Sayles 1984) tells the story of a black alien who crash-lands in New York.

 

The City in Fiction and Film, week 16: JG Ballard’s High-Rise, chapters 1-9

70256Week 15

This week we began to work on JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975; all quotations from pictured edition, London: HarperCollins, 2006), reading the first nine chapters and also watching William Klein’s Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (1977).

We began with some context, outlining the scale and nature of house-building and redevelopment in the UK in the postwar years, drawing largely on John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2013) and Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2008).

There was already a housing shortage in the UK between World Wars. The promise to ensure that soldiers returned from  WWI to a land fit for heroes (and thus stave off socialism) was never met – construction rates were too low and often the wrong kind of housing was being built in pursuit of the rather different goal of making private profit (Paul Rotha’s documentary Land of Promise (1946) is the classic film account of this issue and its history). During the war years of 1939-45 the UK population grew by one million per year – and during the same period four million homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair by bombing (completely undoing the interwar construction efforts and significantly reducing housing stock in relation to total population).

Aneurin Bevan, the minister responsible for housing in the post-WWII Labour government, set a target of 300,000 new council houses per year – but rarely managed more than 200,000 – because the houses were to be spacious (90 square metres), brick-built with gardens. For him, such decent houses were not to be restricted to the privately-owning middle classes – they should be available to the working class, rented at lower than market rates from local councils. (One policy proposal considered but sadly never pursued was buying out all private landlords, thus monopolising the rental market and keeping down the cost of housing.)

When a succession of Conservative governments took office (from late 1951-64), they took up the challenge of 300,000 new houses per year – and succeeded in meeting the target. But they did so by reducing the size of the houses (70 square metres) and shifting from brick construction to speedier (but less durable) prefabricated structures, with no guarantee of gardens. And there was a shift to building blocks of flats rather than houses because they were cheaper and quicker to throw up from prefabricated materials. Ironically, because these blocks were typically set in parkland of some sort, the same number of people could have been housed in the same space with terraced housing.

In High-Rise, Ballard is fully aware of the economics determining such constructions:

All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants. (52)

Why were the blocks typically surrounded by parkland? Partly, it seems to be the influence of Le Corbusier, whose unrealised ville contemporaine (1922) plan to build 24 60-storey cruciform high-rise skyscrapers in which three million people would live and work did so. Ballard does not pursue the scale of this scheme – Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) comes closer – but he does draw on Le Corbusier in other ways.

Le Corbusier advocated five principles when designing apartment blocks:

1 Lift the structure off the ground on reinforced concrete stilts (pilotis), enabling
2 a free façade (non-supporting exterior walls to allow the architecture freedom in his design) and
3 an open floor plan (interior could be configured without having to worry about supporting walls).
4 The free façade enables ribbon windows so as to provide clear views of surrounding gardens.
5 A roof garden compensates for the ground area covered by the building.

These principles are evident in his Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, often described as resembling a moored ocean liner, contains 337 apartments, with a floor halfway up the block devoted to public amenities, and a roof garden. It is also raised up on pilotis. It became a location of pilgrimage and an object to copy for a generation or two of architects, including many of those planning housing developments for British councils. It also provides the design for Ballard’s own high-rise (it even stands on pilotis, ‘concrete legs’ (19)), one of five spaced equidistantly on the eastern edge of an under-construction square mile development in London’s docklands (in this, the novel is proleptic of material we studied way back in week one of the module, The Long Good Friday and London’s Overthrow – as well as of what has actually happened to such spaces since Ballard wrote the novel).

The other context I introduced was about Ballard himself: his centrality to New Wave sf of the 1960s and 1970s; his early novels refiguring the conventions of disaster fiction, such The Drowned World (1962), which also introduce surrealistic images into narratives indebted to writer like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene; the thematic trilogy, including Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974), which concludes with High-Rise; the autobiographical fictions and the more mainstream respectability that came with Empire of the Sun (1984); and the return of his late novels, Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), to transformations in bourgeois living environments.

Turning to the novel, we began by thinking about the names and characteristics of the three narrators, each of whom is associated with one of the three classes that emerge among the middle class residents of the building.

From the lower levels, Richard Wilder – physical, aspirational – he is the wildest and most overtly violent of the three and a frequent adulterer whose wife calls him Dick.

From the mid-levels, Robert Laing, whose name echoes that of the unorthodox psychiatrist RD Laing (1927-89), who saw mental illness as a product of social environments rather than as some kind of inward-driven deformation of the self, and who considered patients’ descriptions of their responses to their environments as valid in themselves rather than as symptoms of Freudian disorder. Opposed to use of antipsychotics to treat mental illness, he favoured recreational drug use and believed that mental illness could be a kind of transformative, shamanic experience. He also promoted primal scream therapy – most of the inhabitants of Ballard’s building seem to go through some version of it – and rebirthing therapy – foreshadowed for Robert Laing when he is surrounded by the threatening guests at the cocktail party to which he is not invited, with the whole novel constituting a kind of rebirthing for him.

From the very top floor, the architect of the building, Anthony Royal – a royal, the king of the place. Recently injured in a car accident, he suffers from a disability – and wears a distinctive costume – that makes him come across, one of the class suggested, like a Bond villain. Which enabled me to go, ah, funny you should say that…

I have long wondered whether having the architect of the building live in the penthouse was inspired by the fact that Hungarian-born architect Ernő Goldfinger lived for two months in an apartment on the top floor of Poplar’s 26-storey Balfron Tower (built 1965-67), which he had designed. He and his wife are said to have thrown cocktail parties to meet the other residents and learn their thoughts about his design so that he could incorporate criticisms and suggestions in his later building, such as the neighbouring 11-storey Carradale House (built 1967-70). Back in the 1930s, Goldfinger had been responsible for the demolition of some cottages in Hampstead to make way for three new houses, in one of which he would live. Ian Fleming was among those protesting the demolition. Twenty years later, Fleming would name a James Bond novel – and villain – after the architect. Ernő Goldfinger threatened to sue over Auric Goldfinger, to which Fleming reputedly responded, Okay, I’ll just rename him Goldprick. Ernő decided not to pursue the case.

Next we took a look at the opening paragraph, detailing how the design of Ballard’s building displays the influence of Le Corbusier and, in particular, Unité d’Habitation, and then looking at how it introduces patterns of imagery that will recur throughout the novel.

  • a post-apocalyptic sensibility that also suggests a descent into primitivism – Laing is calmly eating a dog (cf. Harlan Ellison’s New Wave story ‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1969) and LQ Jones’s 1975 film adaptation), and the building’s exterior is described as a cliff-face (cf. Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), possibly the first novel about skyscraper living, complete with domestic violence and an Oedipal struggle)
  • conflict – confrontation, violence and war imagery (there are skirmish grounds, raiding parties, provocations, retaliations, a buffer state, an interregnum, etc, but also some specifically WWII images – Royal’s ‘personal Dunkirk’ (69) and also, more ambiguously, the Blitz: a voice ‘calm and matter-of-fact, like that of a civilian in a war-torn city dealing with yet another air-raid’ (60) and, during the first blackout, the darkness providing conditions not just of sexual peril but also of consensual sexual adventuring (20))
  • the embrace of isolation, anonymity and alienation
  • apartments as prison cells (later, there will be news of a prison breakout (30), Wilder will be involved in filming a prison strike (42, 44), and his wife, Helen, will blandly observe that his desire to film in the apartment block will produce just ‘another prison documentary’ (45)) – this introduces the idea of the apartment block as what Erving Goffman called a total institution, like prisons and asylums (two of the psychosociologsist in Le couple témoin previously worked in an asylum) and even ocean liners (to which Unité d’Habitation has often been compared)

We then looked at the next section of the opening chapter (7-11), in which we learned more about the structure of the building and the docklands development of which it is a part, and the feelings it induces as a tripartite class structure begins to emerge among its bourgeois inhabitants. Highlights include:

  • indifference, giddiness, exhilaration, insomnia and, especially among female residents, boredom and nomadism; these troubling sensations will later develop into rifts that some think foreshadow or imply the mutation of the residents into a posthuman species (35–6; a similar idea is mooted in Silverberg’s The World Inside)
  • Steele’s anal obsession with garbage chutes
  • bigotry – people begin to talk dismissively and angrily about other floors as groups to be denigrated, abhorred (14, 24, 38) – Steele will compare ninth floor residents to ‘a traditionally feckless band of migrant workers’ (25), and the intensity of these emerging prejudices will be compared directly to ‘racial prejudice’ (32)
  • the relationship to London – which is somehow distanced in both space and time, a past of ‘crowded streets, traffic hold-ups, rush-hour journeys on the Underground’ (9), while the building belongs to an emerging future; in Ballard’s descriptions, time is transformed into space and vice versa
  • a grand Ballardian simile connecting the psychological to the urban, with a vague gesture to TS Eliot (he does this sort of thing a lot – never quite makes sense yet seems to imply immensities): ‘the ragged skyline of the city resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis’ (9)
  • the contradictions of the building – Laing’s sister says: ‘You could be alone here, in an empty building … Besides, it’s full of the kind of people you ought to meet’ (10); Laing will soon appreciate the way the place enables both proximity and distance, providing a neutral background for his potential affair with Charlotte, although he immediately questions whether this is really the case (16) – this idea is developed further when they do first have sex (38)
  • the ways in which the building design encourages its inhabitants to turn inwards, away from the city but also from each other

The_Model_Couple-652984484-largeWe closed with a brief discussion of Le couple témoin, William Klein’s film about an average couple who win a competition to live as test subjects in a new urban development – the experiment is ostensibly concerned with designing apartments to ensure that they meet the needs of such a couple, but it clearly is more concerned with engineering their consent and subservience. The psychosociologist experimenters – themselves hardly rational – subject Jean-Michel and Claudine to an array of absurd tests, frequently bullying and brow-beating them, passive-aggressively consulting at them, reinforcing the most conservative of gender roles. The tests become increasingly irrational and arbitrary – authority being exercised because it is authority, not for any greater end. As funding for the experiment withers, and viewing figures for the Big Brother-like media coverage slump, so a group of child and teen revolutionaries are hired to stage a hostage-taking…

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 7 “The Modernity of the Sophisticate and the Misfit: The City through Different Eyes.”
Baxter, Jeanette. J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.
Colombino, Laura. “The House as SKIN: J. G. Ballard, Existentialism and Archigram’s Mini-Environments.” European Journal of English Studies 16.1 (2012): 21–31.
Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth: Northcote, 1998.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 52–86
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Grindrod, John. Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain. London: Old Street, 2013.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 67–93
Hansley, Lynsley. Estates: An Intimate History. London: Granta, 2008.
Matthews, Graham. “Consumerism’s Endgame: Violence and Community in J.G. Ballard’s Late Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 36.2 (2013): 122–39.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 8. “The City as Queer Playground.”
Siegel, Allen. “After the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Space.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 137–159.
Shiel, Mark. “A Nostalgia for Modernity: New York, Los Angeles, and American Cinema in the 1970s.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 160 – 179.

Recommended reading
High-Rise is part of a thematic trilogy, including Ballard’s most challenging novel, Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974). Ballard’s ‘late fiction’ returns to similar material but relocated to gated suburban communities in Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).
1970s British novels of urban decay include Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Zoe Fairbairns’s Benefits (1979).

Recommended viewing
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (2015) adapts Ballard’s novel.
Modern city living deranges or makes miserable in Repulsion (Polanski 1965), Shivers (Cronenberg 1975), Crash (Cronenberg 1996) and Happiness (Solondz 1998).
Films about the decay of urban centres include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet 1975).

The City in Fiction and Film, week 10: The Secret Agent, part two

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week 9

This week we continued with Conrad’s novel, and also took a look at Hitchcock’s adaptation of it as Sabotage (Hitchcock UK 1936). Our first step was to pick up on a reading exercise left over from last week: in what ways and to what extent do the Professor’s views of society/life (54-6) differ from or coincide with those of Inspector Heat (73-74) and the Assistant Commissioner (82)? [All page references to the current Penguin edition.]

The Professor imagines a world governed by social convention, from which he has separated himself because he is superior to the mass of humankind. To him, society is ‘a complex organised fact’ which orders their lives – even the lives of policemen and anarchists/terrorists, who are similarly bound by it. He describes how Chief Inspector Heat has always to worry about countless things – his bosses, reputation, legal process, being paid, publicity – whereas he himself is capable of focusing on just one thing: building the perfect detonator. He is misanthropic, and has cut himself off from others and, as far as he can, from the needs of his own body.

Heat recognises this social order – he understands thieves. They, like other workers, labour, choosing to risk imprisonment rather than to risk the ‘ankylosis, or lead-poisoning, or fire-damp, or gritty dust’ that come with working ‘in potteries, in coal mines, in fields, in too-grinding shops’ (73). There is a certain honesty to their dishonesty. They are subject to the same morality as him, to the same conventions and demands: ‘Products of the same machine, one classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways but with a seriousness essentially the same’ (74).

The Assistant Commissioner, who misses the active life of being a copper in the tropics, is discontented with his job (he does not like sitting behind a desk, or having to rely on the underlings he manages) and with his life (his wife, who is from a higher class, insisted on living in Britain). Each night, on the way home, he plays whist at his club with the same three acquaintances, none of whom really know each other – they are ‘co-sufferers’, plagued by the indistinct ‘secret ills of existence’ (82). The club, the game, is a safe haven, a semblance of friendship.

All three accept the existence of a less than satisfactory social order: the Professor would destroy it; Heat is content with it, as long as everyone stays in their assigned place and plays their ascribed role; the Assistant Commissioner does his duty in preserving it, regardless of personal feelings. This is the universe that that iron knitting machine knits without pause or consideration.

Stephen Bernstein’s ‘Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent‘ describes the novel in terms of its ‘gothic paranoia and ‘the omnipresence of gothic gloom’’: ‘Everything is ghostly, haunted’ (286) and ‘haunting … is a condition of existence’ rather than merely an isolated location or single individual (287). With this in mind, we looked for gothic imagery of: death, burial, gloom, misery, impoverishment, ill-health, sleepwalking, funerals, existential despair (and clocks).

Verloc’s house is ‘in a shady street behind a shop where the sun never shone’ (205), where the ‘dull brown shelves’ of ‘shady wares’ seem to ‘devour the sheen of the light’ (169). It is in a street where the distant cries of newspaperboys ‘expired between the dirty brick walls without reaching the threshold of the shop’ (162) – indeed, in the ‘darkness and solitude of Brett Street … all sounds of life seemed lost as if in a triangular well of asphalt and bricks, of blind houses and unfeeling stones’ (219). Winnie, when courting another, had imagined marriage as ‘a voyage down the sparkling stream of life’ (191); but when circumstances prompted her to marry Verloc in stead, she found ‘there was no sparkle of any kind of the lazy stream of his life’ , and ‘domestic feeling’ turns out to be ‘stagnant and deep like a placid pool’ (193). Verloc, after Stevie’s death, longs for prison, which ‘was a place as safe from certain unlawful vengeances as the grave’ (186), while Ossipon, on the run with Winnie, curses ‘insular Britain’, which might as well be a prison.

 

Or we could take Winnie as a key example of the range of deathly imagery applied to characters. When Verloc fails to comprehend the extent of her grief over Stevie, her heart ‘hardened and chilled into a lump of ice’ and ‘her features [set] into a frozen contemplative immobility addressed to a whitewashed wall with no writing on it’ (191). The next page recalls her traumatic childhood, in which she had to protect her younger brother from being beaten by their drunken father, a broken brute of a man. Haunted by these memories, she ‘heard [his] words again in a ghostly fashion’ (192). When she replies to Verloc, ‘it was as if a corpse had spoken’ (196). When she has put on a hat and veil to go out, he complains that it is impossible to ‘tell whether one is talking to a dummy or to a live woman’ (203). She even becomes an inanimate object in a suddenly abstract scientific space:

The veiled sound filled the small room with its moderate volume, well adapted to the modest nature of the wish. The waves of air of the proper length, propagated in accordance with correct mathematical formulas, flowed around all the inanimate things in the room, lapped against Mrs Verloc’s head as if it had been a head of stone. (206)

She looks at the clock ‘mechanically’ (212) – some time earlier, Verloc was described as an automaton:

Mr Verloc obeyed woodenly, stony-eyed, and like an automaton whose face had been painted red. And this resemblance to a mechanical figure went so far that he had an automaton’s absurd air of being aware of the machinery in side of him. (156)

Fleeing the house, terrified of being executed and thus intent on making her way to the Thames to commit suicide, Winnie finds, ironically, that ‘The fear of death paralysed her efforts to escape the gallows’ (214):

She was the most lonely of murderers that ever struck a mortal blow. She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss form which no unaided woman could hope to scramble out. (214)

When Ossipon becomes embroiled in her escape attempt, he takes on the appearance of his own death mask – ‘with a face like a fresh plaster cast of himself after a wasting illness’ (232) – while she becomes like death: ‘all black – black as commonplace death itself, crowned with a few cheap and pale flowers’ (234), and when she lifts her veil, ‘out of [her adamant] face the eyes looked on, big, dry, enlarged, lightless, burnt out like two black holes in the white, shining globes’ (235). Ossipon, who is looking to justify robbing and abandoning her, suddenly see her resemblance to Stevie and, recalling Lombroso’s ‘criminal anthropology’,  begins to catalogue her degenerate features. He thus traps her once more in a system beyond her control – like marriage and family and money and class.

Against the broad backdrop of gothic paranoia found in such examples, we turned to chapter eight. The careful reader will have guess already that Stevie died in the explosion, but as chapter eight starts, he seems to be alive and well.

I remember when I first read The Secret Agent (I would have been maybe fifteen, and had already read Heart of Darkness (1899) to try to figure out  Apocalypse Now (Coppola US 1979), which I had sneaked into the cinema to see, and not understand, when I was 11, on the same day that I saw Star Trek: The Motionless Picture (Wise US 1979). Ah! my precocious and misspent youth!). I was absolutely caught up by the suspense of wondering whether it was indeed Stevie killed in the bomb blast, and then was completely thrown by chapter eight and most of chapter nine, which do not signal that they are set in between Verloc’s meeting with Vladimir and the bombing. For the longest time I hated those chapters – it felt like Conrad was cheating, just like the bit with the doorbell at the end of The Silence of the Lambs (Demme US 1991) – but now I see them rather differently. Yes, on one level, it remains a cheap trick; but it also effectively extends that pervading sense of death-in-life as Stevie is consigned, like Schrodinger’s cat, to a limbo existence, hovering between life and death. And chapter eight in particular is fabulously rich in conveying Conrad’s gloomy entombing London populated with grotesques.

The hackney carriage driver is ‘maimed’, his left hand replaced with an iron hook; his giant ruddy face, ‘bloated and sodden’ (125), almost lights up the ‘muddy stretch of … street’ (124). He is stubbly, dirty, with ‘little red eyes’ and ‘big lips’ that have a ‘violet tint’ (126). His intellect has ‘lost its pristine vivacity in the benumbing years of sedentary exposure to the weather’ (126). His horse is ‘infirm’ (124) and emaciated, its ‘ribs and backbone’ visible (132). The carriage itself is not much better (124). The streets through which he drives Winnie and her mother are so narrow that they can look in the passing windows, which shake and rattle as the carriage goes past, sounding as if they might collapse. Jammed ‘close to the curbstone’, their ‘progress’ is insignificant (126).

When Stevie jumps down from the box to lighten the horse’s burden, Winnie is as ‘white as a ghost’ (125) – later, Verloc will look at her ‘as though she had been a phantom’ (139) – but under the gaslights of the ‘early dirty night’ (126), her cheeks take on an orange hue (127). Her mother’s naturally bilious ‘predisposition’ gives her a yellow complexion – only blushing might turn her cheeks orange (127). The almshouse to which she is moving – barren, unfurnished, just ‘bare planks and cheaply papered bricks’ (123) – has such narrow dimensions that it ‘might well have been devised in kindness as a place of training for the still more straitened circumstances of the grave’ (127).

In ‘the seclusion of the back bedroom’ of Verloc’s house, she had ‘reflected stoically that everything decays, wears out, in this world’ (128); she know she will die soon, and so she must ensure Stevie’ s future by abandoning him prematurely, and this decision – to move south of the river! – seems to be at one with the entropic decline of the cosmos. Later, it will be noted that ‘it may be said that [,] having parted for good from her children [she] had also departed this life’ (135) – and she certainly departs the novel, returning only as a memory, someone who must be told of Stevie’s death yet who seems to Winnie to be so far distant as to be utterly inaccessible.

The cab meanwhile rattles on, jolting so violently as to obliterate ‘every sensation of onward movement’ and create the impression of ‘being shaken in a stationary apparatus like a medieval device for the punishment of crime or’ – and this is a brilliant, deflationary touch, ‘some very new-fangled invention for the cure of a sluggish liver’ (129). A similar ironic tone – evident throughout the novel – can be seen when the cabman examines his payment:

pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil. … he talked to Stevie of domestic matters and the affairs of men whose sufferings are great and immortality by no means assured. … A silence reigned, during which the flanks of the old horse, the steed of apocalyptic misery, smoked upwards in the light of the charitable gas-lamp. (131, 132, 132-3)

The continual disjunction between epic phrasing and commonplace life seems simultaneously to say that people should matter this much and clearly do not, and that such illusions might make life bearable, but they are nonetheless illusions.

(This ironic disjuncture exposes the hypocrisy and cant of those who chatter about the ‘dignity of labour’ and ‘heavenly rewards’ by drawing attention to the meagreness of lives here and now and the constraints under which they are lived. Part of me admires that the apolitical Conrad, who believes there is no possible solution to the exigencies of life in a godless universe, never looks for one, and that he refuses to offer any platitudes; but on the other hand, it also frees him from the responsibility of trying to find temporary and partial solutions to real suffering, which kind of annoys me. In this context, Stevie becomes the kind of model liberal subject, incoherently moved to pity and incomprehension – all ‘sensations’ (133), ‘immoderate compassion’ and ‘innocent but pitiless rage’ (134), he cannot comprehend that it is not somehow the job of the police to right such wrongs, but rather in Winnie’s words to ensure ‘that them as have nothing shouldn’t take anything away from them who have’ (138). This is undoubtedly one of those things that, she profoundly feels, ‘do not stand much looking into’ (141). The irony will escalate in the closing chapters of the novel as Conrad gives us insight first into Verloc and Winnie, as their mutual incomprehension grows, and then Winnie and Ossipon, as they talk at cross-purposes, neither perceiving the other, just imputing motives to them.)

The departing cab seems

cast out into the gutter on account of irremediable decay. … Its aspect was so profoundly lamentable, with such a perfection of grotesque misery and weirdness of macabre detail, as it if were the Cab of Death. (135-6)

After Winnie and Stevie return home, the pensive Verloc goes for an aimless walk, leading ‘a cortège of dismal thoughts along dark streets’ (141). On returning home, he stares at Winnie with ‘a somnambulistic, expressionless gaze’ (141) – perhaps like that of Cesar, who we saw in a clip from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a few weeks ago; later, Inspector Heat will also be described as a ‘somnambulist’ (176). Verloc thinks of his mother-in-law in terms of ‘rats leaving a doomed ship’ (141), and then undresses

with the unnoticing inward concentration of a man undressing in the solitude of a vast and hopeless desert. For thus inhospitably did this fair earth, our common inheritance, present itself to the mental vision of Mr Verloc. All was so still without and within that the lonely ticking of the clock on the landing stole into the room as if for the sake of company. (142)

Conrad moves from sarcastic commentary on Verloc’s melodramatic self-presentation of his situation to the delightful image of the animated ticking of the clock – that would not be out of place in either a Fleischer cartoon or a volume of Marx (who often animates inanimate objects in their relation to human life). The clock will become a recurring image in the later stages of the novel – just a couple of pages later, Winnie will ‘let the lonely clock on the landing count of fifteen ticks into the abyss of eternity’ (144) before responding to her husband, and a couple more pages later we will learn of Stevie’s discomposing habit of sitting in the dark at its foot (147). In Winnie’s dullness after killing Verloc she will be puzzled by the ticking of another clock, one that does not actually tick, and then slowly realise it is the sound of his blood running out (209, 210). She will look at the clock again, assuming it must have stopped since time is passing much more slowly than she thought (212); and she will fear it, half-believing that ‘clocks and watches always stopped at the moment of murder for the undoing of the murderer’ (213). (We have already seen the importance of clock imagery to Fritz Lang’s vision of the modern city in both M and Metropolis.)

In closing, we briefly considered the differences between Hitchcock’s Sabotage and Conrad’s novel, noting among other things how Hitchcock of seems to take small items of inspiration. When the Assistant Commissioner leaves his office, ‘his descent into the street was like a descent into a slimy aquarium’ (117); in the film, Verloc meets his paymaster in the subterranean aquarium at Regent’s Park Zoo. When Hitchcock seems to play up Oscar Homolka’s resemblance to Bela Lugosi, this might also be based on vaguely vampiric imagery in the novel – the comparison of Verloc arriving back from the continent like the influenza (Dracula as a European infection), and the revelation that Ossipon basically conducts his business by night to sleep during the day, and so on. The aquarium, of course, also plays into Hitchcock’s imagery of caged birds and animals – exemplifying gothic entrapment, the snare of circumstances.

Hitchcock also has a rather different, if also black, sense of humour. He shows up the absurdities of common people through attention to the details of mundane life, whereas Conrad’s ironic distancing from his characters often seems like sarcastic mockery of their aspirations and illusions.

week 11

Recommended critical reading – see week 9
Recommended reading – see week 9
Recommended viewing – see week 9

The City in Fiction and Film, week 9: The Secret Agent, part one

41Pi137AB+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_week 8

We started this week with the material on the Situationists and the dérive that we did not have time to cover last week, before turning to the first half of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) – which to be honest I was a little anxious about, given the events in Beirut and Paris last weekend – and a very quick discussion of The Third Man (Carol Reed UK 1949), which we watched in the morning.

The Situationist International (SI) was a group of primarily Paris-based anti-Stalinist Marxists influenced by Dada and Surrealism, which existed from 1957-1972. Their key theoretical activity was to develop Marx’s ideas on alienation and commodity fetishism, broadly arguing that capitalism had become so extensive and intensive that life was no longer experienced directly but through commodities; and that it was necessary to find ways to shatter the commodified spectacle of everyday life. They brilliantly and correctly called for automation to be developed not so as to maximise profit but so as to liberate everyone into lives of freedom and leisure and creativity. And of greater relevance here, they developed a number of theorised practices or ways of critically intervening in the city, including détournement – turning the spectacle against itself through pranks, culture jamming, reality hacks – and such psychogeographical experiments as the dérive.

Differing from the journey (which has a clear destination) and the stroll (which is typically aimless), the dérive is concerned with movement through urban space with a kind of double-consciousness. On the one hand, it is about allowing the ‘attractions of the terrain and the encounters’ found there to organise your movement and experience of the varying ambiances of the city space. On the other hand, it requires a conscious attention to the effects this drifting and these shifting environments have on you. The dérive is both planned – you know your starting point, who your companions (if any) might be, you do not have a specific destination but you do have a broad aim – and unplanned, since you cannot know in advance precisely where your feet will be drawn and who/what you might meet. It can seem random, but the structures of the city also play a determining role, deliberately and accidentally guiding you through its ‘constant currents, fixed points and vortexes’ – physical routes and barriers, but also psychological ones. (It is instructive that Abdelhafid Khattib, the Algerian Arab who was part of the SI and one of the early psychogeographical experimenters was arrested by the police for activities his white French colleagues could undertake unchallenged.)

Returning briefly to Cleo from 5 to 7, we could see ways in which Cleo – who last week we considered as a potential flâneuse – might be thought of as underaking a dérive, more obviously in the second half of the film when an overheard conversation in a café reminds her of her friend, the model Dorothée, which leads her through different aspects of and locations in Paris and various unanticipated encounters. (We will return to some of these issues in a couple of weeks when we focus on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (De Sica Italy 1948).)

But this was obviously the point to clumsily segue into a brief introduction to Joseph Conrad, sketching in some biography, his early association with Impressionism (see the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)), his omnivorous  consumption and reworking of raw materials (autobiography, people he met, fiction he read – which lead to charges of plagiarism in Poland –  and real news events – including the French anarchist Martial Bourdin’s presumed attempt to blow up the Greenwich observatory on 15 February 1894, which inspired The Secret Agent).

Conrad is typically considered one of the first British modernist novelists, particularly in regard to his ironic style and the sense of scepticism, melancholy, pessimism, constraint and doom that looms over his fiction (putting him somewhere between Dostoevsky and Kafka).

To help establish this mood or tone, we took a look at this fabulous passage in a letter he wrote to Cunninghame Graham in December 1897 (if I was the kind of person who sent out a family newsletter with Xmas cards, I would be tempted to adopt this). Conrad says that the universe

evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! – it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider – but it goes on knitting. You come and say: “this is all right; it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this – for instance – celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold.” Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident –and it has happened. You can’t interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can’t even smash it. … it is what it is  – and it is indestructible!

It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions  – and nothing matters.

(Which always makes me think of The Clangers – and of that moment of sheer existential terror when the fabric of the universe rips apart in that episode of Button Moon. (I am so street! I am so down with the kids!))

In Conrad’s own description of the origins of the novel he describes how

the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as indifferent to heaven’s frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world’s light. There was enough room there to place any story, depth enough there for any passion, variety enough there for any setting, darkness enough to bury five millions of lives.

And our treatment of the city in the novel will largely focus on this depiction of London as a monstrous, indifferent and cruel place; as a dark grave in which its inhabitants are buried; as an exemplar of modern anonymity; as claustral and carceral; as somewhere that blurs the distinction between home and work; as an amoral structure inhabited by spectral, untethered characters trapped in death-in-life existences; as a place of darkness, secrecy, mechanisation, hierarchy and control.

[Page references are to the current Penguin Classics edition.]

The first passage we looked at, though, was the one in which Mr Vladimir outlines his rationale for targeting the Greenwich Observatory in the faked anarchist bomb outrage. He begins by dismissing the assassination of a head of state, because such actions are now so commonplace that they are no longer spectacular enough. Attacking churches would just muddy the waters with claims that such attacks are religiously motivated; attacking a theatre or restaurant would be passed off as a ‘non-political passion: the exasperation of a hungry man, an act of social revenge’ (26). Of the latter two options, Vladimir notes – with a timeliness the students also noted – that ‘every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away’ (26).

Instead, Vladimir favours an attack that defies such easy narrativisation – it must be something so irrational-seeming as to defy our capacity to explain it away. You could attack art – plant a bomb in the National Gallery – but the only people who would cause a fuss would be ‘artists – art critics and such like – people of no account’ (26). But if you could find a way to attack science – ‘any imbecile with an income believes in that. … They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity’ (26-7). And if you could find away to attack the purest, most abstract-seeming of science – ‘if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics’ (27) – it would be so ‘incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable’ as to be ‘truly terrifying’ (27).

Attacking the Greenwich Observatory is not just an attack on astronomy, the next best option after maths, but also on the global order. It is an attack on the Greenwich meridian, on the military and commercial imperial web imposed upon the world. It is an attack on the seat of power.

And it is a plan conceived from the lofty view, the god’s-eye perspective, we discussed last week in relation to the de Certeau observing New York from the top of the World Trade Centre. The remainder of Conrad’s novel is set down on street level, in the grubby poetry written by his characters transiting through, and pausing to rest in, the city.

Next we took a look at the way in which Conrad depicts the anarchists: the fat, pasty, wheezing, resigned martyr, Michaelis; the grim, giggling, toothless, balding, goateed, dry-throated, deformed-handed, malevolent-eyed Karl Yundt, whose ‘worn-out passion’ resembles ‘in its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile sensualist’ (34); and the ethnically ambiguous Comrade Ossipon, who has a ‘flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type’ and ‘almond-shaped eyes’ that leer ‘languidly’ (35).

Conrad’s descriptions draw upon cultural codes, familiar from popular fiction, yellow journalism and elsewhere, to construct images of unsavouriness and thus to link physical appearance to morality. This is not restricted to the anarchists; later, he describes Sir Ethelred, the government minister, in similarly grotesque terms. Indeed, most – if not all – of the characters in the novel are grotesques. They are the undead adrift in the city, trapped and deformed (physically and morally) by it.

At the end of the section in chapter 3 when the anarchists are described, Ossipon finds the idiot-boy Stevie obsessively drawing, as is his wont, circles. Alluding to Lombroso’s pseudo-science of ‘criminal anthropology’, Ossipon describes young Stevie as a perfect example of degeneracy. Verloc seems sceptical.

It is a curious moment. Conrad seems to be declaring that it is erroneous to make categorical judgments based on appearances even as he relies on his readers doing precisely that. Characters are trapped by their appearances into playing certain roles, just as the city entraps them, constraining and channelling them, serving them up to their fates.

We will return to the novel next week.

In closing, we had a very few minutes to talk about The Third Man. It is set in post-war Vienna, a city which was divided until 1955 into four zones, each governed by a different Allied nation (UK, US, France, USSR), with the international zone in the centre governed by all four powers. As with The Secret Agent, it makes apparent the complex governance structures of a particular which, as in M, is doubled by an underground that seeks to evade those overlapping, panoptical administrative structures. These representations can also help us begin to see the structuration of all cities.

Looking backward, the famous scene on top of the Ferris wheel, in which Harry Lime (Orson Welles) tries to persuade Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) of the statistical insignificance of individuals so as to justify his own monstrous crimes, recalls the view from atop the World Trade Centre that de Certeau talks about. Looking forward, it is a film set amid the rubble – a Trümmerfilm. It signals the ongoing presence of trauma and the urgent need for reconstruction that we will consider in relation to Bicycle Thieves and Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius UK 1949) before the end of this semester, and which will inform our study of Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard France/Italy 1965), Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High Rise (1975) next semester.

week 10

Recommended critical reading
Anderegg, Michael A. “Conrad and Hitchcock: The Secret Agent Inspires Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 3.3 (1975): 215–25.
Bernstein, Stephen. “Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” CLIO 32.3 (2003): 285–301.
Harrington, Ellen Burton. “The Anarchist’s Wife: Joseph Conrad’s Debt to Sensation Fiction in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 36.1–2 (2004): 51–63.
Kim, Sung Ryol. “Violence, Irony and Laughter: The Narrator in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 35.1–2 (2003): 75–97.
Leitch, Thomas. “Murderous Victims in The Secret Agent and Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 14.1 (1986): 64–8.
Mathews, Cristina. “‘The Manner of Exploding’: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Men at Home.” Conradiana 42.3 (2010): 17–44.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 5, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut.”
Shaffer, Brian W. “‘The Commerce of Shady Wares’: Politics and Pornography in Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” ELH 62.2 (1995): 443–66.
Sinowitz, Michael. “Graham Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.” Modern Fiction Studies 53.3 (2007): 405–33.
Stape, J.H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Recommended reading
Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1991) is often seen as a companion novel to Secret Agent.
Novels of urban underworlds include Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1925), Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) and The Third Man (1950), Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City (1938), Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (1953) and Hubert Selby, Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).
The criminalisation of sexual dissidence led to an often autobiographical fiction of queer underworlds and marginal urban existence, including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), Larry Kramer’s Faggots (1978), Alan Hollinghhurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin (1995).

Recommended viewing
Conrad’s novel was filmed as Sabotage (Hitchcock 1936), which we will watch next week, and The Secret Agent (Hampton 1996).
Ambiguous underworlds appear in a vast array of films, including The Informer (Ford 1935), Pépé le moko (Duvivier 1937), Brighton Rock (Boulting 1947), The Blue Lamp (Dearden 1950), Night and the City (Dassin 1950), A Generation (Wajda 1955), Canal (Wajda 1957), Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda 1958), À bout de soufflé (Godard 1960), Hell is a City (Guest 1960), The Yards (Gray 2000), We Own the Night (Gray 2007) and Killing Them Softly (Dominik 2012).
Films about marginalised urban sexualities include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Working Girls (Borden 1986), Paris is Burning (Livingstone 1990), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), The Wedding Banquet (Lee 1993), Exotica (Egoyan 1994), Beautiful Thing (MacDonald 1996), Nowhere (Araki 1997), Fucking Åmål/Show Me Love (Moodysson 1998) and Mysterious Skin (Araki 2004).

Crumbs (Miguel Llansó Ethiopia/Spain/Finland 2015)

crumbs-the-first-ever-ethiopian-post-apocalyptic-surreal-sci-fi-feature-length-filmUltimately, the opening text tells us, the war became unnecessary. Perhaps it was a mutation, or perhaps bone-deep ideology just changed. But people gave up on survival, on perpetuating the species. (The cost, after all, had proven terrible.) The remnant population

slowly started to decrease, wane and languish like the dying flame of a candle that barely resists extinguishing itself. … The elderly passed on and the young became elderly. The news of the sporadic birth of a child, probably conceived out of neglect, was received with condescending smiles the same as in those who mock ignorant people who with pride show off their out of style garments.

Crumbs begins with a series of gently floating shots, starting with a broad view of the peculiar mineral structures in volcanic landscape of Dallol,[1] before moving in to detail their folded textures and colours. Water washes over the surface, as in something by Tarkovsky; the shots commute each other, as in something by Kubrick. A desert wind blows, accompanied by Atomizador’s throbbing alien score. There are mountains in the distance. A lone figure in a light shirt and darker trousers, with a satchel slung over his shoulder, makes his way through this alien yet terrestrial landscape. He is dwarfish, hunchbacked, deformed in some way. We will learn he is called Candy (Daniel Tardesse).

Among the rusting vehicle carcasses and other long-abandoned matériel are the remnants of a pipeline. In the ruins of the salt-block buildings he finds an artificial Christmas tree, its spindly green plastic branches still furled close to its metal trunk. In the distance he spots a figure (Quino Piñero). A man in a military uniform: a medal on his chest, a swastika on his armband, and a rat mask covering his head, grey ears visible above the gas mask covering his face. Candy flees. Distortion fills the soundtrack. Above the salt flats across which Candy runs floats a spaceship, an immense citadel hovering in these post-apocalyptic Ethiopian skies.

The tree is a gift for his lover, a young black woman called Sayat or Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) who makes sculptures from salvaged metal. In the derelict bowling alley in which they live – surrounded by fetishes hanging from trees like those in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – the ball return mechanism has started to activate itself. Sayat suggests that there must be a magnetic field being directed at it, as if someone, maybe the spaceship, which has been ‘rusting in the sky since the beginning of the big war’, is trying to send them a message. When Candy investigates the mechanism – like Henry (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead (Lynch 1977) looking behind the radiator – he finds something unexpected down inside it: a voice, that will later be revealed as that of a skinny black Santa (Tsegaye Abegaz) who might be very small or just a long way away.

Candy undertakes a quest to find out what is going on – a quest that will take him through the stunning green highlands around the Wenchi crater-lake, to a witch who won’t let him pay for her insights with the pristine copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous LP which is supposed to finance his wedding, and then on through an abandoned rail depot to the old city, and through it to a derelict lakeside zoo and a violent encounter with Santa Claus…

I have no idea whether there is a specific folktale lurking in the back of all this, an Ethiopian legend akin to the Malian epic of the crippled warrior-king Sundjata, and accounts of  Llansó’s improvisational style of direction – responding to what he finds on location – suggest that while there might be some such narrative armature the final film is unlikely to map onto it with any kind of precision.

It is a film full of allusions: Candy is challenged by a masked warrior on horseback who gallops up like something out of Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968); a bowling ball rolls mysteriously across the floor, like something from The Shining (Kubrick 1980); a rail line subsiding on a narrow stretch of land built across the middle of a lake recalls China Miéville’s Railsea (2012). There are also bits that reminded me of Space is the Place (Coney 1974) and Save the Green Planet! (Joon-Hwan Jang 2003).

There is the detritus of a lost world, given fresh meaning: a plastic figurine of TMNT Donatello, a Max Steel ‘Force Sword’ still attached to its colourful cardboard backing, a Michael Jackson album, a figure of a child asleep on a mattress, all of which are seen within the story world; and then once more, floating in Earth orbit as gracefully as a Kubrick weapons platform or space shuttle, while the voice of the shopkeeper (Mengistu Bermanu) describes them in relation to their production in the pre-apocalypse and their use by the legendary Molegon warriors – an amulet, an instiller of courage before battles, a reminder of the adored Andromeda baby and of its twin who lived in the pyramid of Cheops. There is an altar to Michael Jordan. Sayat, perhaps awaking from a dream, intones a fervent prayer to a string of deities: ‘Einstein IV, San Pablo Picasso, Stephen Hawking III, Justin Bieber VI, Paul McCartney XI, Carrefour!’ (Though the film is as dark as the storm raging outside, and it is possible she is chanting this litany as she masturbates.) There are also a lot of plastic dinosaurs, and a plastic lion. There are children’s superhero costumes. There is a cinema that has screened Süpermen Dönüyor, Kunt Tulgar’s 1979 Turkish Superman knock-off, every day for forty years, including the day on which we get a glimpse inside.

Candy’s quest brings him to a landscape littered with abandoned trains, rusting wheel-less cadavers, somehow both modern and prehistoric – like the rotting symbols of earlier waves of (failed) colonial expansion Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness (1899). Among them he finds a man who used to work for the railway (Girma Gebrehiwot), but the man does not speak. When Candy starts claiming that he is from another world – rocky, frozen, windswept – the man does not hear him; the discordant soundtrack – part Sun Ra, appropriately enough, part Texas Chain Saw Massacre – drowns his voice (a little like the bar scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch 1992)).

Candy moves on, past corroding watertowers that resemble abandoned Martian war machines. All he wants is to be able to return to his home planet, taking Sayat – and the child he intuits she is carrying – with him.

Some reviews of Crumbs suggest that its elliptical narrative, its congeries and clusters of salvage and allusion, defy meaning. That this rather gentle, beautiful, endearing film is somehow impenetrable. Such reviews are simply and straightforwardly wrong. Crumbs – probably  the best sf film to come out of Africa so far, and by a wide margin the best sf film of 2015 – is as easy to follow as the autobahn down which we are pellmelling to the end of the world.

We are living in the capitalocene moment, the gutted shell that is the present of the future Llansó depicts. The toys and costumes and other absurd relics, some in their original packaging, represent what Evan Calder Williams calls salvagepunk’s returning-repressed ‘idiosyncrasy of outmoded things’.

If I have one anxiety about this film it is that the unfamiliar landscapes it shows us are so beautiful they seem desirable. In this, it speaks to something dark in us. The thanatopic social sadism, recently anatomised by Miéville, the ‘thuggish idiot’s prometheanism’ that proclaims climate change is good for business; that longs with ‘spiteful glee’ for the further ruination of developing countries and the additional edge it will give to first-world corporations.  That yearning to wipe the slate clean. To purge the Earth of the human stain.

[Many thanks to Miguel Llansó, Ewa Bojanowska and New Europe Film Sales for giving me access to a copy of the film; and to China for flexing his celebrity to make it happen.]

Bibliography
Miéville, China. ‘On Social Sadism’, Salvage # 2: Awaiting the Furies. 17-49. 
Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2010.

[1] A ghost town in northern Ethiopia, build for potash mining in the early twentieth century. Photos here  – also google ‘Dallol’ for images of the astonishing landscape. And while you’re at it, take a look at ‘Wenchi crater-lake’.

African Science Fiction 101

This is a slightly different version of an overview essay I was invited to write for the SFRA Reviewthe published version, along with other goodies, can be found in the pdf of # 311 (Winter 2015). There are updates here and here.

africa sfIn almost every imaginable way, I am not qualified to write this piece. I am neither an Africanist nor an expert on African literatures and cultures, and my English degree is sufficiently ancient (and Leavisite) as to have been completely untroubled by critical engagement with world literature, orientalism, postcolonialism, diaspora, globalization, hybridity, the subaltern, and so on. However, thanks to the patience and generosity of many others who made the learning curve of editing the 2013 “Africa SF” issue of Paradoxa rather less steep than it otherwise would have been, there are some things I can pass on. As with that project, this essay is intended as an invitation – to engage with unfamiliar writers and texts, to broaden our vision of sf, and to look together to a global future.

But can we speak of “African sf”?
Africa covers nearly 12 million square miles and has a population of more than a billion (over 20% of the Earth’s land surface and 15% of its population). It stretches from the northern temperate zone to the southern temperate zone and contains, in effect, 65 countries. Its peoples speak somewhere between 1000 and 2000 languages (and multilingualism is commonplace). In the light of such numbers, the adjective in “African sf” runs significant risks: of homogenizing diversity; of creating a reified, monolithic image of what it might mean to be “African”; of ghettoizing the sf of a continent as some kind of subset or marginal instance of a more “proper” American or European version of the genre; of patronizing such sf as somehow not yet fully formed, “developing” rather than “developed”; of separating such fiction from the wider culture(s) of which it is a part; of colonizing such cultural production by seeing it not through its own eyes but through those of Americans and Europeans.1 In teaching African sf, one way to avoid some of these problems might be to focus more closely on a single African country, enabling a more detailed and nuanced exploration of a particular culture (or set of intersecting cultures within that nation), but hitherto only South Africa and Nigeria have really produced enough sf in English for that to be feasible.

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There are vast differences between – and within – North and sub-Saharan Africa. Across the continent, the influence of Arabic, European, Islamic, and Christian cultures has played out in myriad ways, as have colonialism, postcolonialism, and neo-colonialism. There are important distinctions to be drawn between – and within – indigenous and settler cultures, both in Africa and in diaspora. There are complex questions to be asked of the many hybridities thrown up at the lived interfaces and interweavings of these cultures and identities.

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For example, at what point does an immigrant “count” as an African, or an émigré cease to “count” as one? Should Manly Wade Wellman, that stalwart of the US fantastic pulps from the late 1920s onwards, who was born in what is now Angola, be considered an African sf writer? How about Doris Lessing? She was born in Persia in 1919, lived in Southern Rhodesia from 1926-1949, before settling in the UK, where most of her fiction was written. How about Buchi Emecheta, born in Nigeria in 1944 but resident primarily in the UK from 1962? Or Scottish-born Jonathan Ledgard, the East African correspondent for The Economist and director of The Future Africa Afrotech Initiative, who currently lives in Africa? Or Nnedi Okorafor, who was born in Cincinatti to Igbo parents and maintains close ties to Nigeria? While such questions have no straightforward answers, there is much to be gained by thinking collectively about them. My own instinct is not to try to nail down a rigid schema, but to keep matters fluid, relationships open, and potentials in play, and to recognize the specific conjunctural value of “African sf” as a temporary, flexible, non-monolithic, and, above all, strategic identity.

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All of the stories and novels discussed below were either written or have been translated into English. There are undoubtedly works in indigenous languages, as well as in Arabic2 and other European colonizer languages. In terms of which texts are in print, a course on African sf would have to focus on fiction from after the post-World War 2 independence struggles, with the possibility of shifting emphasis from “literary” to “popular” fiction the closer it draws to the present; it is difficult to imagine an sf course that would contain so many Nobel laureates and so much experimental prose, while at the same time requiring students to find the value in pulp. Such a course would probably be suitable only for upper level undergraduates or postgraduates, which indicates the importance of incorporating African sf into general courses on sf, African literature, children’s and YA fiction, and so on.

I have noted whether pre-1980 out-of-print texts are held by the British Library (BL), Library of Congress (LC), the Eaton Collection at UC Riverside (E), the Merril collection at Toronto Public Library (M), or the Foundation collection at Liverpool University (F); post-1980 texts are much easier to find second-hand.

Was there African sf before World War 2?
All the examples I have found are by white South Africans, and only one of them (Timlin) is currently in print.

Joseph J. Doke’s The Secret City: A Romance of the Karroo (1913; BL, E) is a Haggard-inspired lost race novel, written by the Johannesburg-based Baptist clergyman who also wrote the authorized biography of Gandhi. In the frame tale, Justin Retief, a Cape Town settler, discovers a manuscript describing the adventures of his grandfather two centuries earlier. In the framed tale, Paul Retief witnesses the destruction of the millennia-old Nefert, a forgotten outpost of the ancient Egyptian empire, while rescuing his abducted wife, Marion, believed to be a reincarnation of the legendarily cruel queen Reinhild. The prequel, The Queen of the Secret City (1916; BL, E), tells of the rise to power (and the struggle over the soul) of Reinhild – again taken from a manuscript discovered by Justin. It is positioned as an overtly Christian refutation of pernicious Nietzscheanism, but rather clumsily, as if an afterthought. Both books are rare and costly.

Archibald Lamont’s South Africa in Mars (1923; BL, LC) is a posthumous account of encounters with the deceased great and good – including Shakespeare and Cecil Rhodes – on Mars, and involves a supernatural interplanetary scheme to save South Africa from its own failings. The brief description in Everett Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990) astutely “wonders why the book was written” (418). It is not too expensive second-hand.

Timlin-Ship-Sailed-to-Mars-1st-editionBritish-born William M. Timlin emigrated to South Africa in 1912, aged twenty, where he became an architect and, more notably, an interior designer of picture palaces. His only novel, The Ship that Sailed to Mars (1923), is considered one of the most beautiful children’s books of the period – and one of the rarest. 2000 copies were published in London, priced at five guineas (250 of them were exported to the US, and sold for twelve dollars each). In 1926, Paramount announced a film adaptation, to star the now largely forgotten Raymond Griffith, but it went unmade, and the book was not reprinted until 2011. It contains 48 pages of text – not typeset but replicating Timlin’s calligraphy – and 48 paintings, telling the story of how fairies help the Old Man build a ship to travel, in a roundabout way, to the red planet, and of the fantastical civilization he finds there. Timlin’s whimsical blend of sf and fantasy recalls the films of Georges Méliès, perhaps, or Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, though without the latter’s manic energy or sometimes sharp bite; visually, it is much closer to Arthur Rackham.

Leonard Flemming, a farmer and occasional journalist, included the brief story ‘And So It Came to Pass’ in A Crop of Chaff (1925 BL), a collection of slight vignettes and humorous pieces. It is slight, but not remotely humorous. After whites have been eradicated, black people and coloured people turn on each other, destroying the human race.

WhenSmutsGoesAnother early South African sf novel, published just after WW2 is When Smuts Goes: A History of South Africa from 1952 to 2010, first published in 2015 (1947; BL, LC, E, M) by Arthur Keppel-Jones, a professor of History at Witwatersrand University. Intended as an intervention into post-war South African politics, it projects a future in which Anglophone government is overthrown and replaced by a fascist Afrikaner state. The white Anglophone population deserts, or is hounded out of, the country. Black Africans eventually achieve a rather compromised victory over their oppressors, but prove incapable of building or maintaining a modern, thriving nation. Overall, it is one of those oddly racist anti-racist books, reiterating that old nonsense about British colonialism being more benevolent and efficient than that of other European nations. Nonetheless, it is worth the effort of finding one of the reasonably-priced second-hand copies.

First encounters
For a class on African sf, a provocative opening exercise – I am entirely indebted to Isiah Lavender III for this idea – would be to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) alongside Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s debut novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). Although neither is sf, both do science-fictional things. Conrad’s novel is somewhat reflexive about the colonial adventure fiction of the period, but remains deeply problematic in its depiction of Africa and Africans (as Achebe’s devastating critique in his 1975 lecture “An Image of Africa” (1978) persuasively demonstrated, single-handedly changing the way the novel is understood). Conrad depicts the journey into Africa as also one into a prehistoric past, transforming a common colonial trope of travelling backwards along the path of progress into something more akin to Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). The abandoned relics of previous colonial incursions into the continent suggest there is nothing inevitable about “progress,” while also echoing the “last man” tradition of a traveler finding Europe in ruins. The recurring sound of distant blasting and especially the image of a French battleship blindly shelling the jungle indicate the violence of colonial conquest and render modernity absurd. And if we can now also see the sf structures and moments in Conrad’s tale, Achebe’s novel – which is set in a fictional Igbo village in the late nineteenth century, and tells of the coming of white people, Christianity, and colonial governance – can also be read as a science-fictional account of first contact but from the other side.

219909Ideally, I would add Nigerian Buchi Emecheta’s The Rape of Shavi (1983) into this mix. Told primarily from the viewpoint of the inhabitants of Shavi, an isolated African kingdom, it depicts the arrival of a group of albinos in a “bird of fire” – in fact, westerners fleeing what they fear is a nuclear war – and of the various, increasingly tragic, misunderstandings as both peoples see the other through their own cultural standards and preconceptions. Perhaps inevitably, colonialism wins; the Shavians certainly do not. However, as the novel is out of print, an alternative elaboration on this exercise might be to introduce two of the very best stories about colonial encounters American sf has produced, Sonya Dorman’s “When I Was Miss Dow” (1968) and Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” (1984), which draw out in more overtly science-fictional ways some elements of colonial ideology – especially around gender, sexuality, reproduction, cooptation, and cooperation – that are central to neither Conrad nor Achebe.

Irreal Africas, postcolonial fictions
One place to look for traces of African sf is in critical volumes which would never dream of using the term, or would at least prefer not to, deploying instead a de-science-fictionalized discourse of utopia and dystopia, and labelling anything irreal as some kind of postcolonial magic realism or avant-gardist experimentalism. Gerald Gaylard’s After Colonialism: African Postmodernism and Magical Realism (2005) is a treasure trove in this regard. Without Gaylard, for example, I might never have come across South African Ivan Vladislavić’s satirical, often Kafkaesque short stories collected in Missing Persons (1989) and Propaganda by Monuments (1996), many of which – for example, “The Omniscope (Pat. Pending),” “We Came to the Monument,” and “A Science of Fragments” – contain sf elements. (Both volumes are out of print, and second-hand copies of Flashback Hotel (2010), the omnibus edition intended to make these stories accessible once more, are even harder to track down.)

4591255Who Remembers the Sea (1962; BL in French, LC) – written by Algerian Mohammed Dib while exiled in Paris for his opposition to the French colonial occupation of Algeria – is set in a phantasmagorical city that constantly shifts and changes. Strange beasts roam the city, and violent conflict brings death and devastation. Apart from several more or less straightforwardly realistic flashbacks to the narrator’s youth, the novel is told in an elusive manner. It is replete with neologisms and neosemes, used with the consistency one would expect of sf world-building, even if the objects to which they attach are not brought into clear focus. Events and entities never quite seem to hold still. The revolution, if that is what it is, happens offstage, just out of sight. Each chapter seems to have forgotten the preceding one, and sometimes this is the case with paragraphs, too. It is a remarkable account of living under occupation.

In the Egyptian Moustafa Mahmoud’s slender The Rising from the Coffin (1965; LC), an Egyptian archeologist visits Indian Brahma Wagiswara, and then timeslips (or perhaps merely dreams) his way back to the era of the Pharaohs, in which Imhotep seems also to be Wagiswara. Scientific and spiritual worldviews are brought into collision, only for the narrator/protagonist to learn that they are not necessarily contradictory. Mahmoud’s The Spider (1965) was translated and serialized (1965–66) in Arab Observer, but I have been unable to locate any copies.

SF2_AeroplanesThe Ghanaian [B.] Kojo Laing writes complex, experimental confections using sf, fantasy, and realist elements. Woman of the Aeroplanes (1988) brings two immortal communities – Tukwan, a fantastical community in Ghana, and Levensvale, a disentimed Scottish village – into complex contact with each other. Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992) is discussed below. Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters (2006) is his largest, most sprawling, and most difficult novel to summarize, but it does involve, among many other sf elements, genetic engineering that makes it increasingly difficult for rich and poor countries to interact. Nigerian Ben Okri’s even more massive The Famished Road (1991) is easy reading in contrast. In a ghetto of an unnamed African city, the abiku (spirit-child) Azaro is constantly pressed by sibling spirits to return to their realm. In this often oneiric blend, sf imagery recurs.

The novels I would choose to teach, though, are Congolese Sony Labou Tansi’s Life and A Half (1977) and Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006).

512ugeOGOpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The former, set in the fictional republic of Katamalanasia, tells of resistance to a murderous dictator called The Providential Guide, and of the numerous, equally deadly and deranged offspring who compete to replace him. It culminates in an apocalyptic war that involves such superscience weapons as mutant flies whose sting turns their victims into radiant carbon, radio-flies with beam weapons, the radio-bomb, and the real rifle of peace. It is brief, hyperbolic, brutal, and comic.

WizardOfTheCrowThiong’o’s novel, set in the fictional state of Abruria, is much more accessible, but much more massive. An irreal burlesque, indignant at the state of postcolonial Africa, it excoriates brutal domestic corruption and its interrelations with a global economic system constructed to serve the interests of the former and neo-colonialists. For example, in one strand, a government minister jockeying for position plans to build the tallest building in the world – so tall, in fact, that Abruria must develop a space program in order to take the President, by rocket, to its penthouse.

51IomMUSDoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_An alternative for those daunted by the sheer size of Wizard of the Crow might be Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (1998), which recounts the life of a shapeshifting dictator and the history of African decolonization/neo-colonization. Utterly fantastical and in some ways completely true, it is shorter yet more grueling than Wizard, but lacks Thiong’o’s humour and overt sf elements.

Pulp Africas, cyberpunk Africas
There are a number of African texts which we can think of as being closely related to western pulp traditions. Ghanaian Victor Sabah’s brief, self-consciously naïve ‘An Imaginary Journey to the Moon’ (1972) was collected in Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss’s variously titled Best SF: 1972 (1973) and again in Aldiss and Sam Lundwall’s The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction (1986), although editors seems reluctant to detail where it first appeared. South African Claude Nunes – sometimes with Rhoda Nunes as co-author – published a couple of short stories, ‘The Problem’ (1962) and ‘Inherit the Earth’ (1963) in, respectively, John Carnell’s Science Fantasy and Science Fiction Adventures magazines in the UK, before seeing a pair of short novels, Inherit the Earth (1967) and Recoil (1971), as halves of Ace Doubles in the US. The Sky Trapeze (1980) was published in the UK. All three novels are available on kindle. They are competent enough, and their depiction of struggles between humans and posthumans of various sorts could be seen as commenting on Apartheid. However, they are so grounded in American sf – apocalyptic wars, androids, mutants, psi powers, group minds, interstellar travel – that their occasional African settings and traces of a South African perspective are rather overwhelmed.

afrosfthmbcoverThe Apex Book of World SF 2 (2012) and 3 (2014), edited by Lavie Tidhar, include stories from Gambia, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSf: Science Fiction by African Writers anthology (2012) contains 22 new short stories from across the continent (including Gambia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and, primarily, South Africa). This groundbreaking collection displays various, often quite complex, interrelations between African content, settings, and culture, and US pulp traditions, protocols, and story types. A sequel volume of novellas is forthcoming.

Equatorial_AssignmentThere are also a number of thrillers with significant sf elements. The popular and prolific Kenyan David G. Maillu, winner of the 1992 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, wrote several sf novels. The Equatorial Assignment (1980) introduces special agent 009, Benni Kamba. He works for the covert pan-Africanist security organization NISA (National Integrity Service of Africa) in the struggle against neo-colonial power, here represented by Dr Thunder’s SPECTRE-like operation, which is engaged in removing any remotely effective African head of state and replacing him with a puppet ruler. The influence of the James Bond films (rather than Ian Fleming’s novels) on this slight and rather crudely written YA novel is clear. Every woman 009 meets is beautiful and sooner or later ends up in bed with him, though only one of them subsequently betrays him (but her confused feelings for him then lead to a moment of weakness which enables him to triumph). Operation DXT (1986) is a sequel, while Kadosa (1975; BL) is an sf romance, in which the eponymous alien woman visits contemporary mark_cobra_pacesettersKenya. Nigerian Valentine Alily’s Mark of the Cobra (1980) is another Bond-inspired short YA novel: Ca’afra Osiri Ba’ara, aka the Cobra, has developed a devastating solar weapon, and only Nigeria’s Special Service Agent, SSA2 Jack Ebony, can thwart his plans for global domination. The villain even acknowledges when he is quoting from Live and Let Die. A Beast in View (1969 BL, F), by anti-apartheid South African exile Peter Dreyer, was banned in South Africa on publication. In this rather more literary near-future thriller, the League of South African Democrats uncover a scheme to frack oil from shale by detonating a nuclear bomb in the Karoo region.

zoo-city-by-lauren-beukes-naHowever, probably the best route into thinking about African sf in relation to western pulp sf is through cyberpunk.3 South African Lauren Beukes’ first two novels, Moxyland (2008) and the Clarke Award-winner Zoo City (2010) are both cyberpunk-ish – the earlier more obviously so, but I would recommend teaching the stronger, later novel, which might also be considered as urban fantasy, not least since the best critical work on Beukes also focuses on Zoo City.4

41RZVDJW1WL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A brilliant, and rather more challenging, companion novel is Ghanaian [B.] Kojo Laing’s experimental Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992), whose phantasmagorical tale has a cyberpunkish setting. Set in 2020, it tells of the war between Major Gentl and the mercenary Torro the Terrible, with the fate of Achimoto City and perhaps all Africa hanging in the balance. It is dense, fantastical, poetic – and, I have just discovered, no longer in print.

9992142677.02.LZZZZZZZPerhaps, then, the Egyptian Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia (2008), often considered proleptic of the Arab Spring, might do instead. Cyberpunk elements lurk in the background of a world divided between the walled enclaves of the rich and the masses of impoverished and disenfranchised peoples living in the ruins. A young man from the former ventures into the latter for kicks, runs into trouble, returns, but doesn’t really learn anything. Or maybe Efe Okogu’s novella ‘Prop 23’ in AfroSF, which reworks elements of Neuromancer and biopolitical perspectives in a future Lagos.

Publications_Africans_Origins_Of_Ufos_2Or, from among Afrodiasporic texts, The African Origins of UFOs (2006), the afro-psychedelic noir sf novel by British-Trinidadian poet and musician Anthony Joseph (his reading of extracts on the 2005 Liquid Textology CD is also highly recommended). Or perhaps Parisian-born Tunisian Nadia El Fani’s film Bedwin Hacker (France/Morocco/Tunisia 2003), a low-key political thriller about neo-colonial power relations in which a French Intelligence agent tries to track down a North African hacker. It is available on DVD – whereas Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Les Saignantes/The Bloodiest (Cameroon 2005), which plays with cyberpunk imagery in much more challenging ways, is not.

YA fiction
I have not read Ghanaian J.O. Eshun’s The Adventures of Kapapa (1976; F), about a scientist who discovers antigravity, nor have I been able to find a copy of Journey to Space (1980),5 a novella by Nigerian Flora Nwapa, who is widely regarded as “the mother of modern African literature.”

51ZqG7IHPxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Arizonan writer Nancy Farmer spent 17 years living and working in Africa – South Africa, Mozambique, mostly Zimbabwe – where she started to publish fiction. After winning the 1987 Writers of the Future gold award, she returned to the US. Her debut novel, The Ear, The Eye and The Arm was published in Zimbabwe in 1989; the much-revised 1994 version won numerous awards.6 Set in 2194, it tells of the abduction of General Matsika’s children, of their adventures in Harare’s various communities, and of the search for them by the three hapless, mutant detectives of the title.

27845467_0_Img2It is tempting to select Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker (2005), The Shadow Speaker (2007) or Akata Witch (2011) as the YA novels to teach; they are highly-regarded and easily available, and they nicely trouble distinctions between sf and fantasy. However, a course on African SF might be better served by her adult novels, and by instead looking at YA sf from other writers: Zambian-born naturalized South African Nick Wood’s The Stone Chameleon (2004) and Botswana-resident South African Jenny Robson’s Savannah 2116 AD (2004). The former is a relatively slight adventure novel in a post truth-and-reconciliation South Africa of 2030. Race is no longer an issue, apart from all the ways it continues to be one. Kerem, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, and a handful of friends from his new school, find themselves standing up to a neighborhood criminal gang – complete with heavies genetically altered to incorporate physical traits of wild animals – and questing for an ancient source of power that will heal the African communities desolated and divided by European colonialism and its long aftermath. Robson’s novel, aimed at older readers, is a little longer, more complex and more accomplished. It imagines a 22nd-century Africa in which the majority of humans – called, dismissively, “Homosaps” – live on reservations so as to enable the continent’s flora and fauna to recover from global anthropogenic ecocatastrophe. The teenage Savannah, and her new boyfriend, D-nineteen, who is one of the mysterious “gens” – that is, he has been genetically engineered so that, at the age of eighteen, his organs can be harvested and, ostensibly, transplanted into struggling animals – discover all is not as it seems. Both novels are also susceptible to readings from animal studies and biopolitical perspectives.

The borderlines of sf
In Africa, as elsewhere, fiction often lurks right on the edges of the genre. For example, The Last of the Empire (1981) by Senegalese Ousmane Sembene – not only a leading African novelist but also “the father of African Cinema” – is a political thriller about a military coup in a newly independent African nation; it is also almost a roman à clef about Senegal, satirizing its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, with whom Sembene often butted heads. This hesitancy about the nature of the novel’s setting gives it an oddly science-fictional air. A similar science-fictionality haunts the Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera’s The Black Insider (written 1978, posthumously published 1990), in which autobiographical reminiscences are told from within a derelict university building outside of which a war rages. The non-specific location of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians200px-JMCoetzee_WaitingForTheBarbarians (1980), which takes place in a frontier settlement as war between the Empire and the barbarians looms, draws it even closer to sf.7 In contrast, South African Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981) is clearly set in the near-future, with resistance to Apartheid becoming open revolution. Despite this specificity, the novel feels perhaps less science-fictional than Waiting for the Barbarians since its focus is on the shifting relationship between a liberal white family and their black African servant who shelters them in his village, a remote home to which the pass system would only otherwise have permitted him to return every two years.

J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence (2012) juxtaposes the lives of James and Danny before and especially after they meet one Christmas and fall in love: a British spy, and a descendant of Thomas More, he is abducted by jihadists in Somalia; a biomathematician, she studies microbial life in the Hadal depths of the Atlantic ocean. Occasionally too precious for its own good (it is the kind of novel in which one character will quote Rilke in German to the other), it establishes a series of genuinely effective contrasts between the immediacy of James’s experience and the sublime spaces and times of Danny’s.

I would, however, select a couple of debut novels to probe our understanding of the relationships between genres, the ways in which texts are comprised of multiple generic elements and tendencies – and to question the process of using Anglo-American categories to consider African novels.

n295440Nigerian Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You By Chance (2009) won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, a Wole Soyinka Prize, and a Betty Trask Award.8 It is a fast-paced comedy of desperation in which the well-educated Kingsley lacks the right connections to get a job as an engineer. When his father falls ill, and essential medical treatment proves too costly, Kingsley – now also responsible, as the opara (first-born son), for the wellbeing of his whole family – finds himself propelled into the world of 419 scammers. If it had been written by William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, no-one would think twice about treating it as sf.

510QYqzxhOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Nii Ayikwei Parkes was born in the UK and raised in Ghana. In The Tail of the Blue Bird (2009), Kayo – who trained in the UK as a forensic pathologist and worked as a police Scenes of Crime Officer – returns to Accra, hoping to pursue similar work. The Ghanaian police are uninterested in hiring him until the girlfriend of a government minister discovers baffling remains – they might be human, or not – in a distant village. Caught up in the potentially fatal machinations of an ambitious police officer and the webs of everyday urban violence and corruption, Kayo finds a rather different kind of community, with a deep history and traditional wisdom. The novel never quite becomes sf, and its treatment of forensic science refuses the absurd certainties of CSI, but fantastical elements emerge.

Alternative and future Africas
All of the books in this section would work well on an African sf course – and since I do not actually have to choose between them, I will not.

41Dq9vXDDNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_French-resident Djiboutian Abdourahman A. Waberi describes an alternate world In the United States of Africa (2006), in which Africa is the global superpower and Europe a mass of uncivilized tribes constantly fighting each other. This kaleidoscopic novel is not an alternative history as sf normally understands it – there is no jonbar point of historical divergence, nor is it entirely clear whether pre-colonial African civilizations just continued on in to the present. Furthermore, its descriptions of European internecine strife are not an inaccurate description of the continent’s actual history – Waberi merely refuses to drape it in the self-serving narratives of civilization and progress, instead imposing upon it the kind of supremacist myths that typify many European treatments of Africa. Malaika, a French girl adopted by an African doctor when he was working on an aid mission in the benighted continent, returns as an adult to her birthplace in the hope of finding her mother and a clearer sense of her own confused identity. This is a dazzling book, sharp and funny, and there is no way a synopsis can do it justice.9

2The Nigerian-American Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space (2013), largely written and much of it set in South Africa, is an intriguing thriller focused less on the neatly decentered scheme around which it is organized than on its aftermath. In the early 1990s, a politician recruits top scientists from the Nigerian diaspora to return home as part of the “Brain Gain” intended to transform the country through high-tech innovation; in the present day, it transpires that only one of the scientists escaped assassination before the project – or was it just a scam? – could cohere.

220px-WhoFearsDeathbookNnedi Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death (2010) is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which technology and magic operate side by side, and in which dark-skinned Okeke are oppressed by light-skinned Nuru. Onyesonwu, the child of a Nuru woman raped by an Okeke sorcerer, learns to use her powers to prevent the genocide her father plans. Similarly structured to her YA novels, Who Fears Death is about rape, female genital mutilation, violation, trauma, the legacies of violence, the justifications for violence, ethnic struggles, gendered power, political and ethical responsibility, among other things, and wisely avoids proffering easy solutions.

ucyvjzkf9dhkfqnhdonqIn Lagoon (2014), Okorafor leaves behind her YA structure for a fast-paced thriller, and offers a more optimistic vision of a future Africa – or, more precisely, a future Lagos. By her own account, she started the novel as a response to the infuriating District 9 (Blomkamp US/NZ/Canada/South Africa) but, as she wrote, it transformed into something else. Aliens land in the lagoon, bringing chaos – a gang wants to kidnap the aliens, evangelical Christians want to convert them, an underground LGBT group sees in them a harbinger of revolution, the government is too slow and corrupt to respond effectively – and transformation; and Nigeria for once appears in the global mediascape as something other than a source of oil and location of violence.10

71+Qs7tjjtLLagos 2060 (2013) edited by Ayodele Arigbabu, collects eight stories developed out of a workshop in 2010, Nigeria’s golden anniversary year, concerned with imagining Lagos, already Africa’s most populous city, a century after the country’s independence. The stories contain different futures, though with some elements in common, and address global warming and other ecological concerns, nuclear disasters, the continuing role of foreign capital in determining the national economy and thus daily life, the nature of a post-oil Nigerian economy and state, the potential secession of Lagos and balkanization of the Federal State, the polarization of the wealthy and the impoverished, and developments such as the Eko Atlantic City as a moneyed enclave. They are quite pulpy and sometimes crudely written – further evidence of the need Tade Thompson described for regular paying markets for sf in Africa in order for writers to develop their craft – but they represent an important step in the development of African, and specifically Nigerian, sf.

African sf is already at least a century old. It is – as I hope this undoubtedly incomplete overview suggests – wonderfully diverse and increasingly common. It challenges us to rethink our understanding of the genre, and how we think about the past, the present, and the future. It deserves – indeed, demands – our attention. Not as a poor relative in need of charity, but as an equal from whom we all have much to learn.

[There is an update here.]

Notes

1
It has been argued, for example, that the European success of Sony Labou Tansi’s debut novel, Life and a Half (1979), was indebted in large part to its misidentification as “magic realist,” a categorisation that produces significant misunderstandings of both the novel and Congolese culture (labelling it as sf shifts how it can be understood but of course invites exactly the same criticism). At “Imagining Future Africa: SciFi, Innovation and Technology,” the closing panel at the third annual Africa Writes festival at the British Library (11-13 July 2014), British-Nigerian Tade Thompson raised a related problem: without regular, paying markets in Africa for sf of African origin, African writers are likely to orient their fiction towards US or European markets rather than pursue more indigenous forms and concerns. (December 2014 saw the launch of Omenana, a free bimonthly online magazine of African and Afrodiasporic sf, edited by Mazi Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu; and January 2105 saw the launch of Jalada’s online Afrofutures anthology.)

2
For example, the SFE’s “Arabic sf” entry refers to untranslated sf by the Egyptians Tawfiq al Hakim, Mustafa Mahmud, Yusuf Idris, and Ali Salim, the Libyan Yusuf al-Kuwayri, the Tunisian Izzaddin al-Madani, and the Algerian Hacène Farouk Zehar, who wrote in French (as did Algerian Mohammed Dib, whose sf novel I discuss in this essay). Some of Tawfiq al Hakim’s sf has been translated into English. His “In the Year One Million” (1947), depicts a sexless, immortal, future humanity rediscovering love, mortality, and religion; it is included in In the Tavern of Life and Other Stories (1998). Some of its themes are developed in his four-act play Voyage to Tomorrow (1957) and his one-act play Poet on the Moon (1972), both of which can be found in Plays, Prefaces and Postscripts of Tawfiq Al-Hakim, volume two: Theater of Society (1984). In the former, a doctor and an engineer, both facing execution, are offered reprieves if they will pilot an experimental rocket into the depths of space. After a fatal crash, they find themselves revived as immortal beings on an empty alien world, faced with the emptiness of eternity. They return to Earth, somehow human once more, and find that during their three-hundred-year absence, the world has become a utopia of peace and plenty – and that humanity faces a similarly meaningless future. In the latter play, a poet maneuvers his way onto a lunar expedition. He alone is able to perceive the alien inhabitants, living at peace since becoming sexless, and to recognize that his fellow astronaut’s discovery of the Moon’s mineral wealth can only result in colonial devastation.

3
Ghanaian Jonathan Dotse has been working on a cyberpunk novel, Accra: 2057, for several years, although it remains unclear how soon it will be completed.

4
Beukes’ subsequent novels, The Shining Girls (2013) and Broken Monsters (2014), combine serial killer thrillers with sf and fantastical elements. They are a useful reminder – as is Doris Lessing’s sf, which I have omitted from this outline since her work is already well known – that we should not expect African writers necessarily to set their fiction in Africa.

5
WorldCat notes copies are held by four German universities and by Northwestern in the US.

6
Her other sf includes the bleak, near-future diptych, The House of the Scorpion (2002) and The Lord of Opium (2013), set on the contested US-Mexico border. The Warm Place (1995), the Zimbabwe-set A Girl Named Disaster (1996), and the Sea of Trolls trilogy (2004-2009) are fantasy.

7
His In the Heart of the Country (1977) features a fleeting UFO appearance.

8
Nwaubani’s mother is a cousin of Flora Nwapa.

9
Africa Paradis (Sylvestre Amoussou Benin/France 2006) conjures a broader similar near future after the collapse of Europe, the newly-risen African superpower is plagued by the problem of illegal immigrants from Europe; it is available on DVD. Yet another version of this role-reversal milieu features in the final and longest film in Omer Fast’s Nostalgia (2006), a triptych shown as a gallery installation. It is more nuanced than Amoussou’s feature film, but pretty much unavailable unless you are near a gallery where it is showing. Even though both films would work well as accompaniments to Waberi’s novel neither of them is in its league.

10
A somewhat less compelling vision of apocalyptic transformation can be found in The Feller of Trees (2012), by Zambian Mwangala Bonna, who lives and works in South Africa and Botswana. In it, Berenice struggles to reconcile her Christian faith with the political machinations necessary to unite and save Africa when the continent begins to sink.