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On Books

Outside America

by Norman Spinrad

BINTI
Nnedi Okorafo
Tor, $4.22
978-0765385253 

THE DEVOURERS
Indra Das
Kindle $11.99
978-0143424406 

PIRATE UTOPIA
Bruce Sterling
Tachyon Publications, $19.95
978-1-61696-236-4 

CENTRAL STATION
Lavie Tidhar
Tachyon Publications, $15.95
978-1616962142 

It is generally recognized that modern or at least pre-modern literary science fiction—as opposed to post Gernsbackian pulp science fiction, which was born in 1926 with Amazing Stories—originated toward the end of the nineteenth century. It started with the key works of an Englishman writing in English, H.G. Wells, and a Frenchman, Jules Verne, writing in French.

Indeed, the public dialectic (a polite term for an argument that was not always so polite) between Verne and Wells was the birth of two modern streams of science fiction: so-called hard science fiction and literary science fiction, which are with us even today. Verne accused Wells of not being serious about technological and scientific speculation in his science fiction, but using it for political purposes, and Wells accused Verne of centering his stories on the nuts and bolts without serious literary, political, or social intent.

With hindsight, it’s easy enough to see that both were right and both were wrong; Wells’ technological extrapolations, though not central to his science fiction, were as well thought out as Verne’s, and Verne, at least in the original French, was not all that apolitical or characterologically indifferent.

But let’s not get into that in this essay. The point here is that while the godfathers of all serious science fiction might have had their differences, they were a Frenchman and an Englishman. Neither was an American, but by the middle 1930s, America had given science fiction a third stream—pulp adventure science fiction, A.K.A. genre science fiction, A.K.A. space opera, soon to be dubbed sci fi—and it quickly became dominant.

More of this genre science fiction was being published than literary or hard science fiction, and the lion’s share was being published in American magazines. Why? For one thing, America had a strong tradition, which is to say publishing business, of pulp adventure long before Amazing Stories. When “scientifiction” became another pulp adventure magazine genre, there were plenty of writers who could churn out this formulaic stuff and could be paid peon word rates sometimes even lower than a cent a word. America was already in a good business position for magazine publishers.

For another thing, while pulp sci fi magazines did not have big sales demographics compared to the circulation of major American magazines, the overall American magazine sales demographics compared with other countries was gigantic, allowing these magazines to run in the black on their minor slices of the world’s biggest pie.

And while there was science fiction written and published in other languages, most of it, even Verne, was regarded as another form of general literature, because genre sci fi as such didn’t much exist.

Finally, very finally, American science fiction of all three streams was written in English, the closest thing to a transnational language in the world. It may be arguable that Chinese, all dialects taken together, might be the first language of more people than English, but by far English was and is the second language of more of the world’s population than any other.

Furthermore, while English was also the first language of Australians, New Zealanders, Britons, the Irish, and a majority of Canadians, if you added all of them up together, America was and still is by far the largest market in the world for readers whose first language is English.

So much so that even many British science fiction writers who had a viable home market still wanted to crack the American market, because that was where the bigger money was. Unlike authors writing in other languages, they could succeed because they didn’t have to be translated.

Or at least not linguistically.

But culturally many of the American SF magazines wanted stories appealing to American readers (hardly surprising). This meant American central characters and/or settings, and the more commercially shrewd and less patriotic British SF writers played along and succeeded, at least with the genre stuff. When science fiction book publishing began to flower in the 1950s and then became economically dominant over science fiction magazine publishing bottom line-wise, this trend followed, if anything more so, since there was relatively more money to be had for both writers and publishers.

Call it literary English language imperialism, call it the power of the bottom line, call it inevitable market demographics—that is the brief down and dirty story of how American science fiction came to rule the science fiction publishing world.

*   *   *

In the 1960s and 1970s, English language science fiction became more Transatlantic, thanks in part to the New Wave, which started in Britain and moved west to America. British writers of serious science fiction like Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, and perhaps especially Michael Moorcock, were successful in America without resorting to second-hand American characters or settings. And later, British authors of Post Modern Space Opera were as successful in the United States with it as they were in England, because, superficially at least, there wasn’t a question of American or British characters at all.

But English language science fiction continued to have the demographic marketing advantage, and whether written by Americans, Britons, Canadians, Irish, or Australians, science fiction and fantasy written in English, unless it was set in a fairly distant future in outer space and perhaps even then, has had a not entirely subtle consensus Transatlantic and Anglo cultural and even pop-cultural background.

There has been science fiction of literary merit written in other languages all along, and even genre traditions in some non-English-speaking countries with the cultural and pop-cultural backgrounds of Russia, France, Japan, Germany, and so forth. But the English-speaking world knows this literature only in English translation. Not much of it has been published in English translations, because not many American publishers are equipped to make literary judgments in other languages, and for obvious reasons they are not going to front the money for translations of books they have not yet bought.

However, of late, for several reasons, there has been a quiet slo mo evolution—or maybe it’s been going on longer, and only now is this positive cosmopolitan trend becoming more noticeable. There is now, and there has been, a diaspora of American and British SF writers living outside of America or Britain, going way back to Harry Harrison, Mack Reynolds, Arthur C. Clarke, and so forth. Most of them wrote their fiction as if they weren’t expatriates, generally setting it in the Anglo-American culture, with characters familiar to Anglo-American readers, because wherever they were, they were writing for that demographic.

I myself, while living in France for over a decade, wrote a novel set entirely in Los Angeles and another set entirely in the United States, and a third novel set mostly in Paris, but with American lead characters as well as Russians. A significant portion of that book was set in the United States.

But now something different is happening. English is still the dominant international language, if anything even more so. But more and more science fiction and fantasy writers are writing in English, yet are extrapolating from quite different cultures.

Current examples being Pirate Utopia, by Bruce Sterling, now an American living in Italy; Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar, an Israeli living in London; The Devourers, by Indra Das, an Indian living in India; Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian-American living in the United States.

Why Bruce Sterling moved to Italy and to Fiume in particular I have no idea, but it’s hard to believe that if he hadn’t he would have wanted to write or could have written Pirate Utopia. What happened there in five short years of Fiume’s existence as a city state could only have been written about by someone who was at the very least a temporary homeboy.

I am not making this up, and up to a point neither is Sterling.

The Free State of Fiume was one of those semi-independent city states left over and bargained for by various major feudal semi-nations. After World War I it was formally recognized by the League of Nations as an independent entity, sort of, between Italy and Yugoslavia, which was created at the time. Its population was divided between Italians and Slavs, and chaos reigned because nothing else seemed capable of doing so.

Into this mess march a bunch of what might have been called anarchists led by the Futurist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who sort of ruled for fifteen chaotic months, after which the governments of Italy and Yugoslavia formally recognized a Free State of Fiume. After much back and forth and weird elections involving communists, libertarians, Italian and Croatian nationalists, fascists-to-be and more, four years later it was legally absorbed by Italy.

Too simple, you say? You want a little more complexity? Fear not, Sterling takes care of it. Pirate Utopia takes place in this little slice of turf and time. Well, not exactly. This is an alternate history thereof. Well, sort of. That would be a little too simple, wouldn’t it? You could say it was a sort of Italian Magic Surrealism written by an American living in what was Fiume, and you’d be getting close.

But not quite. The McGuffin of the Italian Magic Surrealism is Futurism.

Futurism sounds like some kind of science fiction cult, and, among other things, it sort of is. But for a short period in the twenties this weirdo crazy ideology really existed, and Sterling has lots of madcap humorous fun with it. Ha. Ha. Ha. But the Futurism of the first half of the 1920s was an ideological forerunner of the Italian Fascism of the 1930s, which was not so funny at all.

It would take Bruce Sterling to explain what Futurism was and why it was both sinister and ridiculous, a mash-up of a painting style, Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch, D’Annunzio’s neo-anarchist political screeds and deeds, a kind of worship of steam-punk reverse futuristic technology, pulp science fiction before there was pulp science fiction, a Wagnerian lust for war and physical power—a kind of spaced-out version of Hitler’s dream of the Third Reich in his Lord of the Swastika in my novel The Iron Dream.

Sterling does this by pushing the real Free State of Fiume and Futurism way over the top into a cartoony surreal alternate history parody of something that was a parodic version of what would morph into Fascism in the first place.

Real historical personages become cartoon version of themselves, some playing something like their historical roles, some morphing into others entirely off the wall. D’Annuzio is The Prophet. One Guido Keller, a real WWI fighter plane ace à la Herman Goering, becomes The Ace of Hearts, and so forth, but to make things even more arbitrary, Lorenzo Secondari, a real life strongman, becomes the Minister of Vengeance Weapons under his real name.

It gets further and further away from straight-line historical characters as they transmogrify into other imaginary roles. Houdini is an American spy. H.P. Lovecraft is his press agent. Mussolini is shot in the balls by his ex-wife. Hitler is killed. Marconi is a Futurist politician.

What is going on here?

Well, there are two afterwords and an interview with Sterling in this volume, but as a critic I see it as part of the game to ignore them here. Should the reader read them before reading this short novel? Maybe yes, maybe not. I didn’t, and for me the first half of the story was hard going. It was all a grossly off-the-wall cartoon with characters so simplified and shallow that they didn’t even exactly have names. They were vicious thugs building things like flying torpedoes and death rays, glorifying war, and declaring themselves Supermen. Only halfway through did Secondari become the lead character and a creature with emotional depth, after which the story became more comprehensible, the political aspects of it somewhat more coherent, and Sterling’s intent somewhat more clear.

I do admit to doing a little research upon reading Pirate Utopia, and I found, to my amazement, that the events in the novel, though seen in a funhouse mirror, actually happened, more or less. And Futurism, while not as extreme as depicted, really was a proto-Fascist Communist Anarchist Narcissistic Ubermenschen witch’s brew on acid.

It seems to be, without reference to the afterwords in the book, that Bruce Sterling was exploring Futurism and the Free State of Fiume in the only way possible, with a novel that was an utter exaggeration of an historical reality that was already surreal in the real world, a kind of test to destruction, a surface and phony enthusiasm for its Pirate Utopia beneath which is a psychohistorical explication, à la, well, The Iron Dream, which Sterling does mention as relevant in his interview.

Why an American writing in English chose to write a novel like this, set in an obscure slice of European history in a small Italian city, I don’t know. Maybe because he knew about it from living in Fiume and saw it as a way to deal with Futurism, which, though temporally obscure, had wider general cultural and historical significance than just its epitome in The Pirate Utopia in the short-lived Free State of Fiume.

American culture, history, and demographics being what they are, it’s only natural that while this trend has been accelerated of late, there have long been African Americans writing science fiction and fantasy grounded in their own culture. But that culture is African American culture, not African culture, for Africa is perhaps at least as diverse in culture as Europe.

And Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti is something else again. I came across Binti in Nebula Awards Showcase 2017 because it won the novella Nebula. Before I get into Binti—the best thing in an anthology that has several good stories, not surprising since all of the complete stories in it were Nebula winners, or nominees—I feel it my unpleasant duty as a former president of SFWA and current reviewer to warn potential readers that one third of this eighteen-dollar anthology is not complete stories but excerpts from novels, SFWA’s self-congratulation, the history of the Nebula, lists of past winners, pages and pages devoted to lesser awards. You pays your money and you takes yer choice, but as a critic I didn’t have to. But if I did, if what I was looking for was good fiction to read and nothing else, I wouldn’t.

Be that as it may, Binti, though by the rules a novella, and not a novel, is arguably worth the money standing as a book alone. In addition to its original publication online at www.Tor.com, it has been released as a paperback by the same company. As far as I know, nothing quite like this has ever been written and published in English.

Nnedi Okorafor is not an African American whose ancestral and cultural history is rooted in American slavery and its three centuries of cultural evolution. She is a Nigerian American, and her family and cultural roots are deep and wide in Africa, as can be gleaned from this novella. What is more, in a way much more, the heroine of the title is neither generically African nor Nigerian but neo-Namibian.

About all I, and I suppose most other Americans, know about Namibia is what I read in Thomas Pynchon’s V, where the German imperial colonization is a secondary plot. Binti is not about that. Binti is not about Namibia at all. Binti is set in a far future galactic multi-species civilization, not in Namibia, not in Africa, not on Earth at all, or a future set meekly in our Solar System.

Nnedi Okorafor has taken Namibian culture, religion, consciousness, beliefs, and geology as the template for an extrapolation of a complex, sophisticated, clade of star-faring cultures and species as experienced by Binti, who is a neo-Nambian culturally and mentally maybe, but has never even set foot on the Earth or even heard of Africa.

This would be a kind of post-modern space opera if it weren’t so serious in literary, psychological, and anthropological intent, so well written, so carefully mimetic in its mandatory use of rubber science. This is updated full-bore science fiction. Imagine Larry Niven’s franchised universe written by Poul Anderson or Brian Aldiss if they were writing as Africans. Or not. I have never really read anything like Binti before, and I wonder if or when I will able to read something like it again.

Binti has never been off her home planet or really much besides her arid local turf, modeled on Namibia but not Namibia, when she gains entrance to a far away and prestigious multi species university. Like the Namibian outback, where she comes from is so dry that people coat and clean themselves with a special kind of mud. This will be a key McGuffin in the story when she leaves her family and her ship is hijacked by jellyfish-like aliens. They are on a mission to retrieve the stinger of their chief that rests as an exhibit in a university museum and Binti, through no choice of her own, becomes the political and cultural go-between.

And unlike most science fiction, family, extended family, and Binti’s relations with her family, and her consciousness influenced thereby while not entirely central to the novella, are an important subplot. For sure there have been many, many science fiction and fantasy novels and stories in which the central character’s family relationships are important, but it’s also almost always the successful adolescent rebellion writ older, the escape from the family rules, mores, and cultures.

But in Binti it’s quite the opposite. Binti does break family rules and collective desires when she goes off to university, and it’s always worrisome in the back of her mind. But what she worries about is whether and how she will be welcomed back into the fold, which is not something she is fleeing from but something she desires.

Lavie Tidhar is an Israeli living in England, and family relations are front and center in Central Station more so than in Binti. This is an unusual and groundbreaking novel, at least for me. Central Station is that rara avis, a novel cobbled together from previously published stories that really works as a novel. Central Station is the only novel written in English that is mostly set in a future Tel Aviv. Central Station is also one of the best, most unusual, and convincing depictions of human-cyborg-robot-AI interactions I’ve read or heard of. And Central Station does something so radical with points of view and structure that at first I thought that the text had never been copy edited because it seemed like such a mess.

Central Station itself is a huge tall space ship terminal in between Israeli and Palestinian quarters in a Tel Aviv maybe two centuries or so in our future—Tidhar doesn’t really specify. The Solar System is pretty well inhabited, it’s well in range of the technologically possible, and the politics and demographics are pretty familiar. We have semi-libertarian asteroids, Chinese and other colonies on Mars, the Jovian and Saturnian moons, and so forth.

Tel Aviv itself is a cosmopolitan city, with Jews and Arabs having more or less buried the hatchet, and Central Station being a, well, central station for Solar System traffic, is full of transient and permanent people from all over Earth and the Solar System. The quarters surrounding it, or rather of which it is the center, with transients from everywhere, scruffy, lower and middle class populations, shops, cafés, markets, and so forth, are the sort of milieu to be found around major railway stations in contemporary Europe, and for all I know, contemporary Tel Aviv itself.

Most of the central characters are three or so generations of the Jones, Chong, and Chow families, all folks of the Central Station neighborhoods and intermingling socially and romantically with each other since way back when, and most of them are completely human.

But in this future, there are various degrees of sentient robots and cyborgs. And not only that, but there are entities who are entirely non-physical software from the git-go, superior to humans in the Artificial Intelligence sense, but truly sentient beings, consciousnesses with emotional lives, however alien they may seem or be.

So much for the so-called real world. But cyberspace and virtual reality game space have gone a long, long way. More people than not have avatars in them, and not only live there much of the time, but can make money there that can be transferred into quotidian market reality.

In addition, everyone, or almost everyone, is plugged most all of the time into the Conversation, a combination of Facebook, Twitter, real-time overlays and something close to electronic telepathy cum-Wikipedia on steroids, so that everyone is inside everyone’s head, not one on one, but communally.

All this makes for very fertile ground for short stories. When it comes to crafting a novel out of them, though, an overlying structure is needed, so that episodes that stand by themselves can combine to create a true novel with emotional depth, thematic continuity, and a satisfying epiphany.

Tidhar accomplishes this in a way not exactly common to Anglo-American science fiction by interweaving multiple love stories and stories of familial interaction, all of which could stand alone. But in Center Station the novel, as in Center Station the neighborhood, they affect each other and come to satisfying individual as well as overall conclusions.

But not linearly.

Tidhar starts to do something stylistically toward the middle of the novel so daring and radically unique that at first, and indeed maybe for dozens of pages, I thought it was an amazingly sloppy printer’s error. The novel is written in multiple third person viewpoints, something I do all of the time, and while Phil Dick and I may have introduced this form to science fiction way back in the 1960s, by now it’s commonplace.

But what Lavie Tidhar does with it in Center Station certainly is not. What I do, and what almost everyone does when going from one third person viewpoint to another

 

Is a double line space like this.

 

This is by now a time-honored and useful convention, and readers understand it. Tidhar starts by using it, but sometime along the way, he stops. Viewpoints jump back and forth without line breaks, and even the action in different threads and time-frames moves along without them not only on the same page, but back and forth between different scenes, too.

What the fuck is this? was my first reaction. What gibberish. What an awful amateurish mess.

But as the interweaving stories progressed, I finally got it. Not gibberish. Not an amateurish mess. Genius literary invention.

I have long written and said that third person or first person prose style is the only way to put the reader’s consciousness inside the consciousnesses of the viewpoint characters. Method Writing, I call it, after the Stanislavsky Acting technique, and it’s still useful and valid.

But in Center Station Lavie Tidhar does something congruent with form that works brilliantly in this novel because of the stories he is telling. The Conversation is a multi-consciousness mish-mash in the conscious perceptions of everyone, attention jumping back and forth between times and memories, and Tidhar jumps around in points of view, non-linear time packets, ongoing bits of intertwined story lines, because that is the nature of human consciousness in this fictional future.

For once the medium really is the message.

But I hasten to warn my fellow writers, including Lavie Tidhar, do not do this without a fitting thematic and dramatic reason. After I wrote Bug Jack Barron in the unique style the portrayal of the viewpoint characters’ consciousnesses required, I was told that I should keep writing in that style. No way! That specific style was the consciousness style of the characters, not a style in which to write anything else. Same thing applies to Tidhar’s use of radical form in Center Station.

The medium also has to be chosen to fit the nature of the message.

It’s hard to imagine an American science fiction writer grounded in American culture writing a novel like this even if the setting were moved to Grand Central Station in New York. Yes, Tidhar didn’t have to be an Israeli expat writing in English to invent this thus-far unique form, but the story he uses it to tell is, well, Israeli-European cosmopolitan. Not just the cast of characters, but the centrality of family relationships.

Indra Das’s The Devourers, on the other hand, is a novel written in English by an Indian that is set entirely in India, past and present, with the human characters at least denizens thereof. Perhaps it is not insignificant that this book was first published in India by Penguin Books India and then in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, because a genre science fiction and fantasy imprint publishing a novel like this in the United States might have required some high corporate backing.

Not because it isn’t good. It’s excellent. Not because it isn’t a fantasy novel—it is. But that the nested stories are all set in India and all the human characters are Indian and that the inhuman ones are not even exactly European can’t be considered a plus. The Devourers reads like a novel primarily written for an Indian readership, which it apparently originally was.

Think about what that may mean for the future of English language SF. India has a population of something like a billion and a half people who speak many mother tongues, and it would be an understatement to say that many of them are mutually incomprehensible. That is why English is the lingua franca and second language for at least half a billion people—more than the population of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand combined—and probably at least half of those who read for pleasure can read fiction in English.

What this already means for general fiction written by Indian writers in English for an Indian readership and originally published in India is that there is a larger potential readership for English language literature in India than in the rest of the world combined. In the near future, perhaps even already, Indian English language SF written by Indians will become commercially viable in the home market alone.

And easily exportable, if it is as good as The Devourers.

It may or may not be an acquired taste, but if it is, I have acquired a taste for the real culture and popular culture of contemporary India thanks to this novel.

The frame story takes place there, and specifically Kolkata. This is not the grim, horribly overpopulated city with people sleeping everywhere in the streets, which was its reputation in the United States and Britain elsewhere when it was “Calcutta,” as in the Black Hole thereof. This is a complex depiction of Kolkata that could only be written by an Indian, and probably by one who has lived in the city and loves it.

Alok, a college professor of history, is our first person viewpoint character in mostly the middle and lower class neighborhoods of contemporary Kolkata, made very real, very down home, very pop cultural with fast food joints, sleazy cafés, more upscale bars and restaurants, yet exotically Indian with cults, religious ceremonies, and so forth abounding.

Alok meets a man—or creature—who insists on remaining nameless for much of the book—who claims to be a werewolf, fascinates Alok intellectually and in a very subtle manner sexually, and gives him several old manuscripts to translate into modern language.

These were written in the deep past by his human mother, who was raped by his father, one of the devourers of the title—virtually immortal shape shifters with human avatars and monstrous avatars who hunt humans, kill them, and eat them, and do not even comprehend the concepts of morality or caritas.

At the center of the novel is a kind of love-hate story between the mother and father, rapist and victim, hunter and hunted, human and monster. Encapsulating this is the story of the slow motion seduction of Alok by the their near immortal half-breed son in modern India which begins intellectually and ends up becoming physical.

Das not only writes very well on a sophisticated literary prose level and mystical philosophical level Indian style; he does all this without shying away from many scenes of detailed vivid violent and cannibalistic gore without the book descending into genre horror, no mean feat. And he does the same and even more so with absolutely precise and detailed descriptions of sexual carnality, human and human, human and monster, heterosexual and homosexual, not excluding the key rape scene, without any of it descending into pornography.

And in the doing of this he uses the word “fuck” frequently and precisely as the correct verb for the physical act itself. This may seem like something trivial, but may be a significant cultural marker of the difference between Indian and Anglo-American literary and sexual cultures.

The Devourers is a fantasy novel about a fantasy Indian past framed in a realistically depicted Indian present. Could an American writer have written such a novel by doing the necessary research and/or spending some time in contemporary India? Maybe, maybe not. I did this myself in Mexica with pure research, but that was set entirely in the Mexican past that no one could visit. Same thing with The Druid King. And as long as you did the research well, no one alive could say you got it wrong, and all the more so when what you are writing is fantasy and not historical fiction.

But The Devourers is not merely a fantasy set in ancient Indian wrapped in a realistic depiction of contemporary India. It is a novel that arose from Indian culture, mythos, mores, and consciousness, at once alien and somehow familiar to the Anglo-American reader and particularly the SF reader.

We connect with the common humanity but are fascinated and enlightened by meeting the Other. And after all, is that not one of the central pleasures we seek in the reading of fantasy and science fiction? 

Copyright © 2017 Norman Spinrad

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