Nnedi on the BBC

Nnedi Okorafor, who was a guest on our first ever podcast, has recently been on a radio show produced by the BBC World Series. The Forum is very much like a panel discussion podcast, but with very diverse guests. Nnedi’s episode also included an expert on stress who wants hospitals redesigned to make them more welcoming, and an ecologist who wants us to eat insects to reduce food shortages. Nnedi does get to talk about science fiction in Africa, though the material about insects might be the most science-fictional part of the program. The episode is currently available for listening here.

Pipeline: November 2010

This regular feature of Salon Futura highlights a number of significant book releases (and occasionally items in other media as well) in the month the issue is published. The selections will be made by Salon Futura contributors and staff, and occasionally by our podcast guests and interviewees.
» Read more

New In Store: November 2010

Dark Spires - Colin HarveyDark Spires will be launched tomorrow at BristolCon. We’ll keep the £6.99 pre-order offer available through the convention, but after that the shop will be closed for a day or two as we switch over to some new software and make ebook copies available. Pricing for the ebooks will be £2.99.

We’ll also be selling ebook copies of Salon Futura through the store. And if you are a small press or independent author that is interested in having us stock your ebooks, this would be a good time to get in touch.

Short Fiction: October 2010

The wide variety of metaphor and symbolism available in speculative fiction allows authors to tackle a bewildering variety of topics. One of the most disturbing issues that authors can wrestle with is child abuse. This month I present three recent stories that broach the subject using entirely different sets of tropes: historical slipstream, near future SF, and secondary world fantasy. Child abuse is an extremely emotional subject and must be handled with care. Presumably some authors could exploit it for a cheap emotional boost, but it seems that just about every editor knows better than to allow such a story out of the slush pile. The authors here take their subject matter very seriously.

Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction - July/August 2010Two recent stories are told from the first person perspective of the victim, now grown. The narrators of both Richard Bowes’ novelette “Pining to be Human” (described as autobiographical) and Rachel Swirsky’s “The Monster’s Million Faces” are men who were molested by strangers as children. In “Pining,” (July/August Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) the time period is the 1960s. The (unnamed) narrator is messed up in a whole number of ways: he had a childhood concussion, he was molested by a man in the subway when he was thirteen. Since then he’s flunked out of one college, graduated from another by the skin of his teeth, sold himself for sex to men who think he’s underage (which gives him the money for his therapist), dodged the draft with the help of his therapist, and lived as part of a bisexual love triangle that melts down dramatically. He makes a living as a writer for awhile before completely losing it thanks to his drug habit, and finally winds up in rehab after hitting rock bottom.

This is mainly a straight-up piece of historical and character fiction. A light fantastic motif comes in from the “Witch Girls,” characters from the play “Dark of the Moon,” that show up at various intervals in his life. In the play, they are evil characters who trick the Witch Boy, who wants to be human to live with his mortal love, into staying a Witch. The narrator is completely upfront about decoding the symbolism here: when his college theatre department puts on the play, everyone uses “Witch boy” as code for gay and “Human boy” as code for straight. At the very end, when he has finally decided to clean up instead of descending into chaos and death, the Witch Girls show up in a comforting and soothing role, indicating that he is finally making peace with himself, his sexuality, and his identity.

“The Monster’s Million Faces” - Rick Bowes“The Monster’s Million Faces” (September on Tor.com) is set in the near future. Aaron was abducted as a child, held for five days blindfolded and with ears plugged, molested repeatedly, then dumped back into his old life. He is a functional adult, working for a law firm, but when a female co-worker harasses him he flips out and gets violent, hence, the therapy. The key technology in the story is memory grafts. The idea is that erasing memories doesn’t really work, but you can implant positive resolutions to those memories. The problem is in finding an imaginary resolution that will actually provide the victim with lasting comfort. Once the patient and therapist come up with such a scenario, it will be implanted into the brain with concomitant stimulation of the amygdala.

“People need different things — resolution, confrontation, revenge, absolution, the answer to a question. We’ll keep inducing hypnosis until we find a scenario that works.”

She leaned forward, catching my eye.

“This is just the start — bandaging the wound, as it were. You’ll still need therapy afterward.”

I waved off her provisos. “Won’t I remember sitting here, talking about it? Won’t I know it’s fake?”

Dana shrugged. “We’ve known for a long time that false memories feel true. Intellectually, you’ll know it’s fake. Emotionally and therapeutically, it’ll be true for you.”

The bulk of the story consists of Aaron working through different scenarios: revenge fantasies where he kills the man (who he never saw and can hardly imagine), times when the man asks for forgiveness, times when he is re-violated, all different kinds of images. At the same time we get glimpses of his life: his alienation from his parents, his inability to form meaningful relationships, his view of his life as ‘claustrophobic’ and ‘lightless.’ At one point his father, who’s been told that Aaron’s off work because of a physical injury, says: “Young people heal up fast. You’ll be better any day now.” At that moment in the story it really twists in the knife: children may recover quickly from physical wounds, but psychic wounds can last forever. At the very end of the story Aaron finally does find a scenario that gives him some peace. It’s not perhaps the image or response that you’d expect to be positive, but it convinced me.

Subterranean - Summer 2010Finally, Lucius Shepard has a novella, “The Taborin Scale,” in the Summer 2010 issue of Subterranean that features an abused child. We start with George, a numismatist who enjoys spending his vacations in Teocinte. This country lives in the shadow of a gigantic dragon, Griaule, who is literally as big as hills. It hasn’t moved in centuries, but likewise hasn’t rotted away. There is much debate as to whether it is living or dead, but Teocinte does a good trade in relics (real and fake) related to the dragon. In one bundle of odds and ends that George buys, he finds a dragon scale. It attracts the attention of the prostitute Sylvia (not her real name), who offers to be his companion for two weeks in return for the scale. As George is cleaning and polishing the scale, it transports them in time. They are in the same place, but there is no town and no gargantuan dragon. There is a small dragon that looks like Griaule might have in its youth. It herds George and Sylvia towards water, and then leaves them alone.

They both adapt quickly to their circumstances, attending to practicalities such as food, water and shelter. In a few days, George forages away from their camp and finds himself in an altercation with some unfriendly people who have also been transported. In the process he rescues a child from them.> Peony had been suffering almost daily abuse at their hands. As they are running back to their camp, the young dragon shows up again to let George know that he needs to stick closer to his own camp after this. So George, Sylvia and Peony come to form something of an ad hoc family. Peony is a desperately damaged individual. She had been sexually abused routinely by both her mother and her father. After they were transported in time another fellow, Edgar, joined them. Instead of rescuing or helping her, he joined in the abuse. She is only occasionally coherent, and is mostly checked-out from reality. She believes the dragon is talking to her in her mind.

The first night after George rescued Peony, someone came to him as he was sleeping and gave him a quick blow-job. He assumed it was Sylvia, thanking him for rescuing the girl. But a few months later, he has cause to doubt. He and Peony are out foraging for food, and they stop to nap. He wakes up to find the girl fondling him. He pushes her away and lectures her about not having to do that anymore. But he begins to doubt himself — was it Sylvia that first night? Did he push Peony away fast enough? Was there something prurient in their relationship? He distances himself from Peony even more, forbidding her to even hug him. At this point she’s so disassociated it doesn’t seem to affect her much.

Eventually Edgar tries to infiltrate their camp, bringing a friend along. George kills the friend and Sylvia kills Edgar, acts that bear emotional consequences. Not long after that, the dragon herds all the transportees into an amphitheatre (shifting time again) for the big finale, which I’ll leave to the reader. It is appropriately cataclysmic. In the epilogue we skip forward about a decade. George and Peony live together as father and adopted ward, but there are rumors of an inappropriate relationship. However, having suffered amnesia regarding everything that happened before the cataclysm, Peony seems to have transformed into a relatively healthy, functional adult.

This story is complemented by several footnotes. In one, there is an implication that the world George and Sylvia live in is actually our own Earth at some other time. In another, we learn a bit about what George thinks has actually happened when they were transported through time:

9. Though a rift in time or dimensionality would seem to be indicated, George subscribed to the theory espoused by Peri Haukkola, holder of the Carbajal Chair of Philosophy at the University of Helvetia. Haukkola believed that people under extreme stress could alter the physical universe even to the point of creating pocket realities, and George assumed that a reality formed by Sylvia’s self-avowed identity crisis comprised the relatively empty landscape they currently inhabited.

This seems like a somewhat random note in the story, but the narration returns to it a few times. I wonder if it isn’t pointing to the possibility that this adventure is a pocket universe created by Peony — the dragon Griaule, shadowing over everything, would represent her universe of abuse. The people transported to the pocket universe rescue her from her abuse and start to care for her. When they finally kill her abusers, the cataclysmic event happens, washing her clean of her memories and allowing her to be in some way reborn. I may be forcing this reading of the story, but it gives heft to some of the rather gargantuan metaphors lurking around the tale. I strongly encourage you to go and read this one and see what interpretation strikes you. Like all good literature this story can be read on multiple levels.

All of these stories are intense and disturbing, and point to the lasting effects of child abuse and molestation. In each, the victims are disassociated and alienated from their realities; only somewhat functional in their own lives. Shepard’s novella also delves into the effect that abuse can have on others, as George begins to doubt himself and his own motives, and succumbs to fear that he could unintentionally perpetuate the abuse. I’d also note that Peony is what I’d describe as a more ‘typical’ abuse victim: she was abused repeatedly by family members. The men in the other two stories were molested in one-off encounters with strangers, which I understand is less common. In any case, this fundamental betrayal by the world leaves all of them unable to trust or to form meaningful attachments to other people. Of the three I’d say that Swirsky’s tale is the most horrific and intense, while Shepard’s is the best written. (I have long admired Shepard’s skill with prose and structure. He is one of my favorite stylists in the field, along with Jeffrey Ford.)

It strikes me that SF/F is particularly well suited to discuss intense emotional issues such as abuse. With its ability to cast stories into worlds of literalized metaphor, it can bring out the emotional significance of these themes in a wide variety of ways. In “Monster’s Million Faces,” Aaron gets to mentally confront his abuser in diverse guises, finally working out his fundamental question. The narrator of “Pining to be Human” wrestles with his identity, but finally sees the threatening Witch Girls as comforting figures. The oppressive dragon of “The Taborin Scale” ends in a fiery cataclysm. In each case this seems to lead to healing and a measure of peace. I hope that stories such as these can lead to a hope of comfort for real-life victims of abuse, and can lead non-victims to greater understanding of the continuing issues facing those afflicted.

Pipeline: October 2010

This regular feature of Salon Futura highlights a number of significant book releases (and occasionally items in other media as well) in the month the issue is published. The selections will be made by Salon Futura contributors and staff, and occasionally by our podcast guests and interviewees.
» Read more

Pipeline: September 2010

This regular feature of Salon Futura will highlight a number of significant book releases (and occasionally items in other media as well) in the month the issue is published. The selections will be made by Salon Futura contributors and staff, and occasionally by our podcast guests and interviewees.
» Read more

New in Store: September 2010

Each month we plan to bring you news of new releases in the Wizard’s Tower Press web store. Except that we are still building the store, so there’s not much to say this month. Fortunately editor, Colin Harvey, has come through with the table of contents for Dark Spires. We’ll have that available for pre-order as the store is finished. Meanwhile here’s something to whet your appetite.
» Read more

Fire in the Stone

Jonathan McCalmont reviews Nicholas Ruddick’s The Fire in The Stone – Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel (Wesleyan University Press, 2009)

Read enough reviews, blog posts and criticism and chances are that you will eventually come across an accusation of nostalgia. Recent years have seen conspicuous numbers of genre authors turning their gazes from the future to the past. Sometimes this past is real as in the case of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, sometimes this past is fictitious as in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and sometimes this past is entirely fantastical as in Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. As techniques associated with alternative history become more and more popular, and the authors deploying these techniques more and more prominent, it was perhaps inevitable that some commentators would spot a cultural sea change.

According to some, the growing popularity of the past marks, not a sudden interest in history, but rather a retreat from it. The argument has it that science fiction has always been in the business of writing about the future. However, facing growing international instability and domestic cultural fragmentation whilst lacking any believable political narrative through which to engage this uncertainty, science fiction has stopped writing about the future in order to dwell on the past. The past is safe, it tells us stuff we already know. It is comforting, it allows us to re-fight old battles that we know we can win. We always get to be on the right side of the argument:

Who knows whether you will have a job in six months’ time? That’s pretty damn scary, so here’s a picture of a clockwork Darth Vader to take your mind off it!

Will America decide to invade Iran thereby plunging the West into a nuclear war that will kill hundreds of thousands and destroy a global economy entirely dependent upon oil? That’s an unpleasant thought, so distract yourself by killing MechaHitler with a Gatling gun!

Links to various articles on the subject of steampunk can be found at the foot of this review.

With style and aesthetics forming such a fundamental part of Steampunk’s appeal, it is tempting to write off the current vogue for alternative histories as harmless fluff in which speculative techniques designed to engage with the world are deployed instead to help readers escape from it into a more comforting and appealing set of fictions based upon old historical certainties. But is backward-looking speculative fiction necessarily about consolation, or can it be used to ask more profound and pressing questions? Nicholas Ruddick’s book The Fire in The Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel goes some way to providing us with an answer.

The primary focus of The Fire in the Stone is to provide a critical history of the prehistoric fiction (PF) genre from its first emergence in Pierre Boitard’s posthumously published Paris Before Man (1861) right up to the release of certain canonical modern works such as William Golding’s The Inheritors (1955) and the Earth’s Children series by Jean Marie Auel, which began with the publication of The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). Ruddick pursues this focus thanks to the easy access into the topic provided by the book’s two central chapters; the first a strictly chronological account of the genre’s evolution, and the second a thematic examination of that history using a succession of critical lenses including race, gender, language and human nature. It is this second chapter that provides much of The Fire in The Stone’s conceptual fireworks as, though extensively researched and elegantly communicated, the chronological chapter does tend towards dryness simply because, in order to isolate PF’s tropes, Ruddick must make clear the ’family resemblances’ between dozens of different stories.

Ruddick uses the acronym ’PF’ in order to drive home the idea that prehistoric fiction should be understood, not as a subset of historic fiction, but as a part of the speculative genre continuum alongside science fiction, fantasy and horror. The reason for this is that, for Ruddick, the act of telling stories about the unwritten prehistoric past mirrors the act of telling stories about an as yet unwritten future; both are acts of speculation which, though frequently informed by empirical research and the best available thinking, are ultimately reliant upon a bold imaginative leap into the unknowable. It is Ruddick’s analysis of this imaginative leap that allows The Fire in The Stone to provide a major step forward in the way we think about genre.

While The Fire in the Stone’s account of contemporary PF is over-shadowed by two writers (Auel and Golding), the same can also be said of its depiction of early PF. Intriguingly, the writers in question also dominate the landscape of early science fiction. However, where H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are towering and heroic figures in the history of SF, Ruddick presents them very much as the villains of the piece. The reason for this lies in The Fire and The Stone’s central concept: the idea of ’Hominization’.

Hominization is an old idea with intellectual roots stretching back as far as Aristotle’s muddle-headed ideas about foetuses becoming ’ensouled’ forty days after conception. In more modern times, the term has come to signify the process of becoming human. But what is it that does the becoming? Is it an individual, a species, or a branch of a particular phylogenetic tree? In truth, the term is actually quite nebulous and therein lies its theoretical spiciness. The term can apply equally well to attempts by paleoanthopologists to isolate the point at which humans became distinct from pre-human species, to the much more abstract and quasi-moralistic discussions of whether or not Pinocchio is a real boy and, much more sinisterly, to whether members of different ethnic groups are really human. Indeed, if there is a process of becoming human then it follows logically that there must be a process of becoming inhuman, and it is in this area where Wells and Verne cast their ominous shadows.

Ruddick presents Verne as a reactionary Catholic martinet who, upon learning of the work of Darwin, went out of his way to create a counter-narrative that might provide people with reasons for rejecting evolution in favour of the Church-sanctioned creationist theories of the day. Indeed, in 1867 Verne revised Journey to the Centre of the Earth to reflect the possibility that the fossils unearthed by early paleoanthropologists were not the remains of pre-human species but rather those of non-human species that had co-existed with humans in ancient times. However, by 1901, as evidence for the existence of pre-human species began to accumulate, Verne’s strategy began to shift from a narrative of creationist denial to one of racial exceptionalism as The Village in the Treetops drew on the work of Carl Christoph Vogt to suggest that non-white humans were descended from entirely different species of apes. As Ruddick puts it :

’By this new narrative strategy, Verne’s aim was now not so much to deny the antiquity of man as to affirm that the chasm between his own race and people with darker skins was unbridgeable’ [p. 169]

This eerily fascistic viewpoint on early human history is also present in the PF writings of H.G. Wells. ’The Grisly Folk’ (1921) — one of Wells’ last short stories — mirrors the writings of the paleontologist Marcellin Boule by presenting Neanderthals as a savage and atavistic people. As Ruddick puts it:

’The evidence from the earliest PF suggests that Boule’s dehumanization of the Neanderthal was not so much a product of rational deduction as a product of an emotional reaction already thoroughly conditioned by scientific racism.’ [p.160]

While Wells was not alone among PF authors in imagining that modern-day humans are the product of a superior human strain to the extinct Neanderthals, what singles Wells’ fiction out is the genocidal fury that animates his vision. Indeed, ’The Grisly Folk’ is full of talk of ’true men’ having to fight for survival against the stupid, cannibalistic and ogre-like Neanderthals. For Wells, had the Neanderthals not died out it would be necessary for us to expunge them.

Taken together, the PF works of Verne and Wells paint a picture of an early paleoanthropology where scientific thought cohabited with racist superstition and outdated received opinion. Indeed, one of the more fascinating aspects of The Fire in the The Stone is the extent to which the relationship between PF and early paleoanthropology is presented as a two-way street with actual science informing PF just as easily as fictional speculation informed scientific discourse. This blurring of the line between science and outright fiction in the process of Hominization is what makes the concept so fascinating and powerful in the study of genre.

The history of PF and the history of paleoanthropology illustrate a continually evolving conception of human nature. While works such as those of Verne and Wells sought to exclude certain racial and cultural traits as ’inhuman’, later works such as those of Auel and Golding sought to reclaim the previously ’inhuman’. They present not only a more inclusive and generous conception of what it is to be ’one of us’, but also a more tolerant and open-minded attitude to the Other.

Because Hominization is partly a reflection of an author’s cultural values it effectively provides a means for contemporary authors to engage with the world through a fictionalised and speculative past. When Golding and Auel re-invent the Neanderthals as a species whose difference in no way impedes their capacity to generate sympathy, they are not merely writing about Neanderthals but about us. By stressing the importance and desirability of certain traits relative to others in their accounts of human origins, PF authors are presenting these values, not merely as desirable or useful in evolutionary terms, but as central to what it means to be human. And any trait seen as central to the human condition cannot but be placed at the top of a moral and aesthetic hierarchy. For example, when Golding’s The Inheritors describes homo sapiens as ’clever, conflicted, cunning, cruel, corrupt’ and yet strangely sinister when compared to the far more sympathetic Neanderthals, Golding is emphatically rejecting any correlation between evolutionary utility and morality. For Golding, the world is an ugly and terrifying place precisely because the ’wrong’ species survived.

By decoupling Hominization from any notion of objective evolutionary ’progress’ and revealing it to be just as much a question of fashion and individual judgement, Ruddick provides us with a powerful lens through which to observe all kinds of speculative historical fiction. Indeed, if we extend Ruddick’s argument beyond the boundaries of PF then one could argue that all visions of a speculative past — whether they are historical, fictionalised or fantastical in character — depend primarily upon an act of interpretation by the author. This act of interpretation edits and orders the facts of history so as to present an image of a fictionalised past that is all about the values and attitudes of the present. In effect, this act of interpretation asks the same sort of ’What If?’ question as acts of speculation about the future. Indeed, instead of asking ’What if the future is formed by x, y and z?’ writers of speculative historical fiction are asking ’What if x, y and z had formed the past?’. By asking these sorts of questions, writers of speculative historical fiction are taking the values and facts of our world and our history and interrogating them by projecting them against the past.

Thus, far from being seen as a retreat from the real world, works of Steampunk can be understood as attempts to confront the sense of disenchantment that has grown alongside the technological accomplishments of the modern world. Similarly, by asking us to sympathise not with Leibniz or Newton but with the decidedly contemporarily-minded Daniel Waterhouse, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is asking us to dwell on the extent to which matters of social class and religious doctrine might stand in the way of today’s thinkers as they struggle to make sense of the universe. Meanwhile, Whitfield’s In Great Waters follows Golding’s The Inheritors by showing us that, even in a fictionalised past, the savage, ruthless and psychopathically detached would inevitably rise to the top regardless of how humble their origins might have been.

As though to underline his book’s utility to anyone thinking seriously about contemporary science fiction, Ruddick ends The Fire in The Stone with an impassioned coda singing the praises of Stephen Baxter’s novel Evolution. By fictionalising not only the emergence of the human genome but also the extinction of the creature with the last surviving human trait (maternal love), Baxter is demonstrating the profound kinship between PF and SF. As Ruddick so beautifully puts it at the very end of the book:

’It is profoundly in our nature to seek to understand ourselves and our destiny by returning to our mysterious beginnings. And it is always in this hope that we mount our imaginary time machines, fuelled by unquenchable primate curiosity, and vanish into the unknown past or future.’ [p. 205]

This image of a Wellsian time machine disappearing as easily into the past as into the future drives home the book’s message of a profound kinship between speculation about the future and speculation about a past that may or may not have ever existed. Both involve the projection of our values and our beliefs against a human timeframe that can never be completely understood. By speculating about the future and the past we are speculating about ourselves and by speculating about ourselves we are engaging with the world in a way so basic and so profound that it should never be dismissed as mere escapism or nostalgia.

Further reading on the Steampunk debate:

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