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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Nick Wood, Azanian Bridges (2016)

book_azanianAzanian Bridges is a neat little thriller, set in more or less the present-day South Africa but in a world in which Apartheid continues.  A quick and compelling read, it does a couple of rather cunning things.

The first is its choice of alternate history premise.

There are a number of African alternate histories which invert or rewrite elements of European colonialism (e.g., Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa (2006), Africa Paradis (Sylvestre Amoussou 2006)  – and Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (2016) to look forward to).

There is a future history imagining the conditions for the emergence of something akin to Apartheid (Arthur Keppel-Jones’s When Smuts Goes: A History of South Africa from 1952 to 2010, first published in 2015 (1947)).

There is an array of near-future thrillers that anticipate the end of Apartheid (Anthony Delius’s The Day Natal Took Off (1960), Gary Allighan’s Verwoerd – the End (1961), Iain Findlay’s The Azanian Assignment (1978), Randall Robinson’s The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay (1978), Andrew McCoy’s The Insurrectionist (1979), Larry Bond’s Vortex (1981), Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981), Frank Graves’s African Chess (1990)).

And there is an alternate history with the brilliant premise of aliens arriving in the skies over Johannesburg during the Apartheid era, although sadly District 9 (Blomkamp 2009) doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. (Read Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014) instead.)

But, as far as I know, Azanian Bridges is the first story to project Apartheid beyond 1994.

In doing so, Wood sketches in some sly geopolitical changes. The Soviet Union did not withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, but has spent thirty years ‘haemmorrhaging men into their Afghan ulcer’ (31). Perestroika and glasnost seem not to have happened, and the USSR is intact, apparently governed by generals. The Berlin wall has not fallen, nor has the Eastern bloc collapsed. Consequently, ‘the old anti-communist arguments for supporting’ South Africa (163) held sway rather longer among Western powers, and it comes as little surprise that Bush and Blair were both supporters of the Apartheid regime. But now President Obama – along with his ally, the US-backed mujahideen leader Osama bin Laden – are involved in peace talks with the Soviets. The Cold War might finally be limping into its terminal phase, and with weakening Soviet influence in Africa, China is investing heavily across the continent. Meanwhile, in a South Africa ruled by President Eugène Terre’Blanche’s Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, Mandela did not leave Robben Island and FW de Klerk is still in prison for trying to bring Apartheid to an end in the 1980s.

All of which is sketched in with greater economy than I have just managed, not least because the layers of paranoid security and firewalling significantly restrict all South Africans’ access to the internet and other global media. Phones with cameras are also banned since they are a ‘potentially easy source of troubling video’ (45) – a nice touch that captures the novel’s relevance to our #blacklivesmatter times.

The second (and really really) cunning thing that Wood does is make a connection between the new experimental technology introduced into this alternative near-present and the form his narrative takes: the Empathy Enhancer allows one to experience the experience of others, and vice versa; the novel’s chapters alternate between Sibusiso Mchunu, a young amaZulu on the edges of anti-Apartheid struggle who is deeply traumatised when a friend dies in his arms, shot to death by the police at a protest, and the white (but as-yet not very committed) liberal, Dr Martin Van Deventer, the neuropsychologist treating Sibusiso and co-inventor of the Empathy Enhancer.

The security services want the EE device for use in interrogations. Anti-Apartheid groups want to use it to undermine the regime, person-by-person. It is not clear why the Chinese want it, but they do. So when Sibusiso goes on the lam with the device, and Martin sets out in pursuit, the alternating chapters set you up to expect a tensely intercutting thriller, as pursuers become the pursued.

And there are a number of tense sequences and suspenseful passages.

But Wood is playing a very different game, subverting the form to make the reader focus on the twin protagonists’ very different experiences of living in a racist state which sees them both, in different ways, as its enemies. This ranges from the most perilous things – run-ins with the security services – to the most quotidian: when Martin is told to destroy his cell phone so it can’t be used to trace him, he simply ‘grind[s] the phone under [his] heel’ (153); when Sibusiso’s phone is simply taken from him and tossed into the sea, he is ‘upset and angry’, in large part because ‘we have been taught to throw nothing away’ (129).

Such contrasts are the point of the novel.

Azanian Bridges itself is the Empathy Enhancer. Read it and weep.

The City in Fiction and Film, week 15. Urban alienation: machines for living in, living in machines.

Alpha_1024x1024.jpgWeek 14

This week we turned from the American suburbs to futuristic (that is, 1960s) Paris, with Alphaville (Godard 1965). But first we took a trip through the history of representations of the city in sf cinema, guided largely by Vivian Sobchack’s ‘Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film’ (1999).

We returned briefly to Metropolis (Lang 1927), with its vision of a metrocosm – a city with with no apparent exterior – in which verticality dominates: skyscrapers, aerial roads and railways, aeroplanes, and above them all the incredible building from which Joh Fredersen, at the centre of a web of communications technology, governs it all. The bourgeoisie live above the ground; beneath them lie the machines upon which the city depends; and beneath the machines live the workers. Here, verticality figures an oppressive class structure (not unlike the glass slabs reaching into the skies of present-day financial centres). In Just Imagine (Butler 1930), however, Sobchack suggests that verticality implies something different because there is no subterranean world, no marginalised working class, just structures leaping into the sky. Here, she argues, the city as expresses that most American of values (or ideological sleight-of-hand): aspiration. Individual personal planes that can also hover weave among the skyscrapers. (But in longer shots, they all follow rigid grid patterns, like the orderly automobiles on the streets below; this tension between individualism and conformity is played out through the protagonists’ resistance to state control over who marries whom.)

We took a look at the opening of the film, which imagines nineteenth century, 1930s and future version of New York – the wry tone of the sequence indicates the film’s broader ambivalence about the notions of progress it also, at times, seems to espouse.

Detouring from Sobchack, we spent some time looking at the incredible montage sequence, scored by Arthur Bliss, from Things To Come (Menzies 1936) in which, following decades of war and plague and petty dictatorship, the new Everytown is constructed. I mentioned how masculinist the film’s notion of progress is at this point – the Earth is some kind of womb full of riches, waiting to be torn out – but had completely forgotten quite how phallic some of the machines are. The whole sequence can be seen as technoporn, an erotics of mechanism, one in which the future is built on the scorched Earth of the past. In Things to Come, decades of war cleared the ground, but in the real world this was done – and continues to be done – quite deliberately. For example, in the US, the urban renewal programme that ran from 1949 to 1973 bulldozed 2,5000 neighbourhoods in 93 cities, dispossessing at least one million people. Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums (2006) borrows the Filipino term ‘hot demolition’ to describe contemporary landlord arson of slums so as to clear land for redevelopments that are never intended to provide housing for the impoverished populations burned out of their homes.

Equally important for our purposes, though, is quite how abstract Things to Come’s the scientific manufacturing looks – we can see that proficient, technoscientific processes being signified while remaining more or less completely ignorant of what they are actually doing. This is important in thinking about the semiotic thinking of Alphaville.

 Film_660w_ThingsToCome_originalThe sequence ends with the revelation of the subterranean mall future, hints of mid-twentieth-century architecture’s International Style evident in buildings with set-back bases and non-supporting exterior walls. But before we get to the mall, there is a glimpse of a radiating landscape in the distance – of a Garden City.

The idea of the Garden City was espoused in Ebenezer Howard’s To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Reform (1898), significantly revised as Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), which was influenced by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888). In it, he outlines the attractions and repulsions of two existing magnets – the town and the country – and outlines the attractions of the third, proposed magnet he calls ‘town-Garden_City_Concept_by_Howard.jpgcountry’, or the Garden City. The idea was to build new towns from scratch that avoided urban poverty and squalor – overcrowding, poor drainage and ventilation, pollution, disease, lack of access to the natural world – by combining the pleasures/benefits of the country (nature, fresh air, low rent) with those of the city (opportunity, entertainment, good wages). The Garden Cities would be of limited size, preplanned, and owned by trustees on the behalf of the tenants – and thus also work to undermine private ownership and landlordism.

Letchworth Garden City commenced construction in 1903 and Welwyn Garden City in 1920. Howard’s ideas were taken up by Frederick Law Olmsted II in the US, influencing aspects of suburban development, and after WW2 also influenced British ‘New Town’ developments.

(Incidentally, and à propos of nothing relevant, Howard is the great-grandfather of Una Stubbs.)

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Disappearing City (1932) took pushed beyond Howard’s ideas even further, proposing the complete dispersal of urban centres into the countryside. Each family to be given an acre of land on which to build an ‘organic architecture’ homestead that used local materials, matched the contours of the land and opened up the interior of the building to the world outside. Unlike Howard, Wright prioritised private automobile ownership over public transport – though in illustrations, he also seems to imagine the car being replaced by varieties of helicopter. Wright ‘Broadacre City’ design was also an influence on US suburban developments.

Returning to American sf films, our next port of call was the short film showing of Norman Bel Geddes massive Futurama diorama, built for the General Motors exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It envisions an entire country organised around roads and automobiles – quel supris! – and urban centres that owe something to Le Corbusier’s ville contemporaine (1922), which emphasised orderliness, symmetry, space and vistas in a plan to build 24 60-storey cruciform high-rise skyscrapers in which three million people would live and work (which, if divided out evenly, would 125,000 people per building and approximately 2,080 per floor).

Sobchack draws on Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, to describe ‘the fantasy’, evident in 1950s US sf films, ‘of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself’ (Sontag 44). In such films height and aspiration are brought low as tidal waves sweep through Manhattan (When Worlds Collide (Maté 1951)), when a reanimated dinosaur romps through New York (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Lourié 1953)), when flying saucers crash into the Capital’s neo-classical government buildings (Earth vs the Flying Saucers (Sears 1956)) – and, in Japan, when Godzilla smacks down Tokyo. This concession to non-US cinema is telling. Gojira (Honda 1954) is a bleak film, critical of nuclear war and Cold War atomic escalation; when recut for US release as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), all such material is carefully excised so as not to have to face up to it.

Sobchack also adds the category of films in which we are shown deserted cities. Five (Oboler 1951) shows us not destruction but the emptiness of all that aspiration (and is mostly filmed around a desert home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). The remarkable The World, the Flesh and the Devil (MacDougall 1959) not only casts Manhattan’s skyscrapers as the tombstones of civilisation, but also, like Five, tries to discuss racial politics. Both films show that one of the few legacies of American civilisation that will endure into the post-apocalypse is the colour line – suggesting that it is not just an issue of individuals who are racist, but of the deepest structures of American society. Ultimately, both flinch away from their full implications, but they are among the relatively few films of the period trying to say something important about it.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the underground returns in THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), replacing aspiration with oppression; fullness becomes overcrowding in Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973); and in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), the ‘brutalist’ architecture of postwar British developments – evoked here by the Thamesmead estate – becomes brutalising, or is at least blamed for brutalisation.

In the 1980s, white flight from the centre to the suburbs has given way to white flight to the off-world colonies. In films such as Blade Runner (Scott 1982), the urban core has been junked rather than redeveloped, and then exoticised and made cool by punks and ethnic others. The exhausted, colourful downtown seems to go on for ever – remember how improbable the flight to the countryside seemed at the end of the original cinema cut – and the city seems to have become all run-down centre. In contrast, the blast LA landscape of Repo Man (Cox 1984) is all exhausted, quirky margins, as if any kind of centre is impossible. Also, in films such as RoboCop (Verhoeven 1987), Darkman (Raimi 1990) and They Live (Carpenter 1988), it becomes clear that property developers – and the financial interests they serve – are grasping, criminal, inhuman.

In the 1990s, Sobchack argues, the decentredness of the city gives way to the ungrounded or groundless city. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on pastiche in films such as Independence Day (Emmerich 1996) and Pleasantville (Ross 1998), in which very familiar sf images are repeated – flying saucers destroying the Whitehouse, a conformist smalltown invaded by alien others – but have no real connection to the cultures in which they are produced and consumed. And on the other hand, thanks largely to the development of CGI and other digital production technologies, there are films in which the city becomes a vertiginous, boundless space across which impossible trajectories are traced (The Fifth Element (Besson 1997), Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (Lucas 2002)) and, perhaps more interestingly, a space to be endlessly reshaped – and human identities along with it – by far from benevolent powers, as in Dark City (Proyas 1999).

Since Sobchack wrote her essay, the city in sf film since the 1990s has become primarily a post-9/11 space. It is subject to:

  • inexplicable alien attacks in Cloverfield (Reeves 2008), War of the Worlds (Speilberg 2005), Attack the Block (Cornish 2011)
  • terrorist attack in Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams 2013)
  • emptying out in 28 Days Later… (Boyle 2002) and I am Legend (Lawrence 2007)
  • military occupation in 28 Weeks Later… (Fresnadillo 2007)

In Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), the city is reduced to an endless camp for remantn populations and dislocated people.

In Mad Max Fury Road (Miller 2015), the city as such has completely disappeared, leaving nothing but a brute vertical structure of violent oppression.

Turning to Alphaville, we began by outlining the dystopian elements of the future it depicts, some of which clearly develop ideas and themes we had already encountered last week in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These included:

  • centralised and totalitarian control (the extent to which the Alpha 60 computer and Alphaville are co-extensive is ambiguous, but arguably the inhabitants of Alphaville effectively also live inside the computer)
  • loss of emotion and flattening of affect
  • state-organised spectacle (swimming pool executions replacing books burnings) which is not so much about punishing perpetrators as reminding the rest of the population of the state’s potential to use disciplinary force
  • the ubiquity of modern commodities, which replace art, live music, poetry, etc
  • the degradation of language – if you remove words from the dictionary, people cannot feel or express the emotions/ideas they signify
  • the reduction of humans to the status of commodities (which, in Alphaville’s treatment of all(?) women as sex-workers does at least demystify the economics of normative heterosexual exchange)
  • the imminence of nuclear war
  • an architecture – here all cold reflective glass and marble – that establishes barriers between people
  • an emphasis on abstraction – signs and graphics, diegetic and otherwise – rather than on embodied human interconnection

This last point extends into the film’s emphasis on semiotics – how meanings are created and circulated. This is most obvious in the way in which, in Alphaville, nodding your head means ‘no’, and shaking it means ‘yes’ – semiotic signs, remember, are arbitrary and conventional.

The film foregrounds an array of intertextual connections – references to characters from pulps, comics and films (Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Nosferatu, Heckel and Jeckel), to scientists and related institutions (von Braun, Fermi, Einstein, Heisenberg, Los Alamos, IBM), but does little if anything to explain them, leaving the viewer to fathom their presence, their signification – perhaps as a kind of pop culture primer to help us read the poetry of surrealist Paul Eluard that might save us.

The film plays with genre, casting Eddie Constantine, already familiar to French audiences from the actual Lemmy Caution films in which he has starred, and going out of its way to make the sex and violence and melodramatic music of crime thrillers awkward and absurd (as if desperate to find a way to both have the pleasures of mass culture and to distance itself from them). Such elements signify a genre to which the film using them arguably does not belong – at least not in any straightforward way.

Finally, the film levers open the gap between sound and image that conventional continuity editing tries to close down. Not only do we not know where Alpha 60’s voice actually comes from in the world of the film, we also often do not know its status in relation to the footage: can it be heard by the characters? is it a voiceover address to the viewer?

Next week, we turn in more detail to the International Style, the influence of Le Corbusier on British postwar developments, to brutalist architecture and its decline – and to the first half of JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975), accompanied by The Model Couple (Klein 1977).

Week 16

Core critical reading: Utterson, Andrew. “Tarzan vs. IBM: Humans and Computers in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.” Film Criticism 33.1 (2008): 45–63.

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London:    Routledge, 2006. See Chapter 5, “From Postmodern Condition to Cinematic City.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Duarte, Fábio, Rodrigo Firmino and Andrei Crestani. “Urban Phantasmagorias: Cinema and the Immanent Future of Cities.” Space and Culture 18.2 (2015): 132–42.
Easthope, Anthony. “Cinécities of the Sixties.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 129–139.
Hilliker, Lee. “The History of the Future in Paris: Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s.” Film Criticism 24.3 (2000): 1 – 22.
–. “In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape.” The French Review 76.2 (2002): 318–29.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 6, “Utopia and Dystopia: Fantastic and Virtual Cities.”
Shaw, Debra Benita. “Systems, Architecture and the Digital Body: From Alphaville to The Matrix.” Parallax 14.3 (2008): 74–87.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.
Utterson, Andrew. From IBM to MGM: Cinema at the Dawn of the Digital Age. London: BFI, 2011.

Recommended reading
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), Yegeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) are key dystopias concerned with modern built environments. Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) is an ambivalent take on life in an arcology.

Recommended viewing
The design of the future city in Things to Come (Menzies 1936) draws on contemporary architectural debates.
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971) and Logan’s Run (Anderson 1976) are set in dystopian arcologies. World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johson 1984) looks at the future city designed by corporations for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Jacques Tati’s mechanised suburbia of Mon Oncle (1958) is matched by a hyper-modern Paris in Playtime (1967).

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan 2014)

MV5BMjIxNTU4MzY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzM4ODI3MjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Interstellar (2014), a film in which Matthew McConaughey both keeps his shirt on and plays a magical bookcase from a galaxy far, far away, is not that they gave the bloke responsible for Clippy, the annoying Word for Windows Office Assistant, a second chance – this time to design robots – but that, even without a credited science advisor, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan managed to grasp relativistic time-dilation effects with such precise and unrelenting hard-sf rigour that for every hour spent on the sofa watching the movie an eternity seemed to pass…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RoboCop (José Padilha 2014)

robocop_ver3and so anyway it turns out the best thing about RoboCop (2014) is not its astonishing commitment to the lipogrammatic principles of the Oulipo group, going far beyond Georges Perec, for example, who wrote the 300-page novel La Disparition (1969) without using the letter ‘e’, in order to gather together the few surviving remains of a franchise blown apart by lame film sequels, not to mention insipid live-action and animated television incarnations, and from them to build a whole new 117-minute film without using the letters ‘wit’, ‘intelligence’ or ‘decent action choreography’; no, the very best thing is that in the tagline at the top of the poster, very first word, they spelt ‘cinema’ wrong…

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

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

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

Frequently praised by HL Mencken as

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– is stolen, and published in the newspapers:

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

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

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

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

Once the strike is over, the mill owners

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

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

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

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