Margrét Helgadóttir’s The Stars Seem So Far Away (2015)

image7It starts off as little more than a vignette. Nora on the high seas turns stone killer when she needs to in order to survive.

Then it becomes a cycle of short stories. The world has warmed up. The ice has mostly gone. Humans and other animals (and plants) have died off in massive numbers. Cities built to house the enormous refugee populations in the former arctic regions now stand empty, more or less. Plague has taken its toll. Food is hard to come by, and so is trust.

Simik, leading a mission to destroy an old mine, is guided by the ghost of an arctic fox, though he cannot let his men know he is following a creature that probably does not actually exist.

Orphaned Aida in a nearly deserted city cares for the dying man who looked after her.

Orphaned Bjørg, with the aid of genetically engineered polar bears, protects the seed vault concealed on a remote island; things change when Simik shows up.

Zaki – Aida’s brother who deserted his family without explanation – runs into a not-exactly-Ballardian former astronaut turned hermit.

And then, as these characters converge, it becomes more clearly a novel.

All of the characters are haunted by loss, as is the post-climate change, post-mass-extinction, post-plague world through which they move. Both land and sea are more or less empty, desolate. The last genetically engineered killer whale is just a dissolving mass of corruption in a filthy tank.

If the world-building does not entirely make sense, there is already more than enough deadeningly literal, rigorously extrapolated climate-change fiction out there. Helgadóttir seems much more interested in grieving for the world that, frankly, we have already lost; and in trying to re-enchant what remains so that it will be cherished and sustained.

This is why slightly unusual the structure works so well. The characters – and the novel – move from profound disconnection to reconnection. To friendship and community and to hope.

And to a rather YA-ish conclusion in which the stars suddenly do not any longer seem quite so very far away for the youthful cast (although for a curmudgeon like me, the mild sense of dissatisfaction with this was redeemed by the final lines, which sweetly award the final moment of hopeful connection to the oldsters).

***

Thanks to Margrét for sending me a copy after I wrote about the African Monsters collection she co-edited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They matter and make meaning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As if naming them contains them.

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps difference is not a lack at all.

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

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

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

Not just full communism.

Full-on communism.

AfroSF volume 2 (2015), edited by Ivor W. Hartmann

afrosf2So much has happened since the appearance of Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (2012). It is not just that AfroSF is more visible than it was four years ago, but that the market and venues for it are growing, especially at short story length. This year alone has given us Jalada’s online Afrofuture(s) anthology, Nerine Dorman’s Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa, Jo Thomas and Margrét Helgadóttir’s African Monsters (2015) and five issues of omenana. This proliferation must have seemed impossible when Hartmann started work on AfroSF 2, but it makes his decision to follow up his anthology of 22 short stories with a collection of just 5 novellas all the more significant.

There is a long tradition of sf writers cutting their teeth on short stories before proceeding, via novella and novelette lengths, to full-length novels. Primarily a peculiar by-product of the demands of mid-twentieth-century US magazine publishing, it nonetheless provided a pragmatic apprenticeship and trajectory. We no longer live in that world (as Eric Flint’s Hugo commentaries spent a bunch of 2015 explaining), and with the majority of sf magazines now electronic rather than hard-copy there is relatively little demand for fiction at those intermediate lengths. But the step-up from short-shorts and shorts and even long-shorts to novels remains a big one. And so AfroSF 2’s change of format represents a conscious commitment to the further development of the field – and of the writers within it. Only two of the six writers in this volume have published a novel before: Nick Wood, whose YA sf The Stone Chameleon appeared all the way back in 2004 (although his sf novel, Azanian Bridges, is due out early next year), and Tade Thompson, whose crime thriller Making Wolf appeared just a couple of months back.

AfroSF 2 opens with Thompson and Wood’s ‘The Last Pantheon’, a sprightly tale of rival African superheroes, called Black-Power and Pan-Africa, that riffs off Luke Cage and Black Panther (and Superman), as well as name-checking Nigeria’s Powerman aka Powerbolt (drawn by a young Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland) and South Africa’s Mighty Man (but why not Jet Jungle?). Although the backstory covers millions of years, the story itself focuses on their decades-long disagreement over the role they should play in the period of post-WW2 anti-colonial and post-colonial struggle – the assassination of Patrice Lumumba is a watershed moment – and on an attempt to bring them both out of retirement for one last smackdown, to be televised globally. It is all rather canny and quick-moving.

Next up is Mame Bougouma Diene’s ‘Hell Freezes Over’, set in a post-human post-civilisation hanging on in the watery ruins of our world as a new Ice Age advances. The two halves of the story, placed (I think) in reverse chronological order, feature treachery, betrayal, revolution and retribution. Sadly, it is not the kind of story I ever enjoy, regardless of who wrote it (reminded me of Claude Nunes, kinda, but that’s probably too obscure to be helpful), and I read it under considerably less than ideal conditions (involving tube trains, loud drunks, illness and fatigue). But it does contain some quite beautiful passages, such as when the Fish People swim into waters that freeze around them.

I am a big fan of Dilman Dila, and his ‘The Flying Man of Stone’ is for me probably the best piece in the anthology. Like his ‘A Killing in the Sun’, it is about surviving (or not) in the contradictions, uncertainty and sheer randomness of conflicts; like ‘The Healer’ it is about the complex cultural and social identities left in the wake of colonialism; and like ‘Itanda Bridge’ and ‘The Yellow People’ it is about crash-landed aliens living underground and forging ambiguous symbiotic relationships with humans. It is also a superhero story, full of questions about power, responsibility and consequences.

Andrew Dakalira’s ‘VIII’ is set in a near-future Malawi where a series of apparently random killings breaks out just as the world’s population hits eight billion. These attacks turn out to be a global phenomenon, presaging a wider slaughter (there’s a kind of AVP backstory lurking in the backstory). It rattles along at great pace, jumping between multiple viewpoint characters. You wonder how this apocalypse can possibly be averted and, when the story is over, you continue to do so.

Efe Tokunbo Okogu, whose BSFA-nominated ‘Proposition 23’ was one of the highlights of AfroSF, ends the volume with ‘An Indigo Song for Paradise’. It is the longest piece in the anthology, a great big sprawling mess of story that works really well when it does work, but never quite hangs together, especially when it switches from cyberpunkish crime caper action sequences to meandering, sententious speechifying. As with Diene’s ‘Hell Freezes Over’, I found the setting a little too unfocused to get a clear grip on. There is an idyllic Gaia and a post-apocalyptic Terra which also seems to be a post-historical Dying Earth. There is the ironically named Paradise City, presided over by an evil corporation and the remaining few white people (known as vampires), and populated by people of colour who sound a lot like they’ve popped in from the 1990s. And there is a xombie apocalypse. And it might all just be a simulation running on a computer anyway. Everything the author could think of seems to be crammed in somewhere somehow, and some of it might be jokes I just don’t get. But there is no denying the pell-mell energy that dominates stretches of it.

There is, of course, a downside to publishing just novellas. Obviously, Hartmann’s desire to do something new and different with this volume, to help writers step up to the challenges of writing at greater length, means that AfroSF 2 inevitably lacks AfroSF’s wide variety of story types and voices from across the continent and diaspora. This is most obvious in the absence of women writers (discussed with Hartmann and omenana’s editor Chinelo Onwualu on the always fabulous bookshy).

Maybe the next challenge, whether for Hartmann or others, should be an anthology of AfroSF entirely by women writers. It should only be a matter of logistics – as the original AfroSF and other anthologies/magazines clearly demonstrate, there are already more than enough potential contributors out there.

(Many thanks to Ivor for providing me with an ARC.)

African Science Fiction 101: update 2

The months since my last update have been crazily busy with other things, so there has been little time for research and even less time for actually reading any of the goodies I’ve uncovered. Most of which are annoyingly inconvenient sizes and shapes to lug around with me over my Xmas perambulations. But I thought I would post another list before Xmas (and before that teetering pile of books in the corner falls over on top of me).

First up, I should mention the hugely embarrassing omission of Amos Tutuola from the article that started all this (and my indebtedness to Paul March-Russell for drawing it to my attention   in such a generous way). Truth is, I have never read anything by him, though The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954) and Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962) may well 51ZoowIE8gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_be squeezed into the suitcase. As might D.O. Fagunwa’s Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga (1939), translated by Wole Soyinka(!) – the first Yoruba-language novel, said to be an influence on Tutuola, not least in its fantastical landscape in which the supernatural is as real and present as the natural world.

While we’re in the margins of what might be considered sf, I have had a load of things recommended to me that might be more appropriately labelled ‘weird’ or ‘slipstream’:

  • Tawfiq Al-Hakim, The People of the Cave (1933) – a play based on the seven sleepers of Ephesus, who sleep their way into the future; their story is told in the eighteenth surah of the Qu’ran
  • Bertène Juminer, Bozambo’s Revenge (1968)41yjzEc0m9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ – satirical alternate history in which Africans have colonised a swampy Europe full of idle, childish, pallid natives
  • Gamal al-Ghitani, The Zafarini Files (1976) – in a crowded corner of Sadat-era Cairo, a sheikh uses magic to take away men’s sexual potency
  • Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, Snares without End (1978) – there is an essay about him at Weird Fiction Review
  • Ivan Vladislavić, The Folly (1993), which seems to have a nice salvage vibe to it, if not exactly salvagepunk
  • Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way (2002) – begins with a black woman explaining how she turned white, but not in quite the way I initially thought it was going to go
  • José Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons (2004) – a murder mystery involving a trader in memories and identity creation
  • Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (2008) – a wonderful poetic novel, one of the best things I’ve read this year; there is something fantastical about it, but there is not any fantasy in it…
  • Franklin Rosemont and Robin DG Kelley, eds, Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (2009) – does what it says on the tin
  • Fiston Mwanza Mujilla, Tram 83 (2014)Tram-83-310px-square – according to reviewers it is ‘Blade Runner in Africa with a John Coltrane soundtrack’ that ‘transfigures harsh reality with a bounding, inventive, bebop-style prose’ and depicts ‘a world so anarchic it would leave even Ted Cruz begging for more government’
  • A. Igoni Barrett, Blackass (2015) – Furi Wakiboko wakes up one morning to discover he has turned white; well, all but one part of him has…

The more obviously genre works that have come my way include:

  • Charlie Human, Apocalypse Now Now (2013) – an urban fantasy thriller in Cape Town’s supernatural underworld
  • Masha du Toit, Crooks & Straights (2014)51Jp-br-R1L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_ – YA urban fantasy in which Cape Town provides a home for magical refugees
  • Sarah Lotz, The Three (2014) – global thriller with horror/fantasy edge
  • SL Grey, Under Ground (2015) – while a lethal virus sweeps the world, the folks hiding out in a plush subterranean survival bunker find they have brought horror with them
  • Rob Boffard, Tracer (2015) – set on the falling-apart space station housing the last of humanity above a devastated Earth
  • Ivor W. Hartmann, ed., AfroSF volume 2 (2015)afrosf2 – contains five novellas by Tade Thompson and Nick Wood, Mame Bougouma Diene, Dilman Dila, Andrew Dakalira, and Efe Tokunbo Okogu
  • Jo Thomas and Margrét Helgadóttir, eds, African Monsters (2015) – contains fifteen stories and a comic strip by, among others, Dilman Dila, Nerine Dorman, Tendai Huchu, Sarah Lotz, Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Nick Wood

(Should also mention Tade Thompson’s debut novel, Making Wolf (2015), although it is a crime thriller, not sf/f.)

One of the things I am interested in starting to trace is the role of speculation and futurity in African political discourse, which has recently led me to:

  • JE Casely Hayford (aka Ekra-Agiman), Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation (1911) – a novel which apparently includes a vision of a future pan-Africa
  • Camara Laye, A Dream of Africa (1966) – a novel which apparently does the same

Taking of awkwardly shaped and sized books, as I was some time back, one final goody I stumbled across, which provides some useful context for thinking about African sf/f is Readings in African Popular Literature (2002), edited by Stephanie Newell. It reprints some critical articles, but also some fiction and comics and various pages from Drum magazine.