Monday, 14 May 2018

Trevor Hoyle - An Interview (Part One)

The versatile English author Trevor Hoyle was featured on SF Forward last year, with an introductory profile; afterwards, my friend Chris Scarfe, who grew up close to the Hoyle family in the Newhey area of Rochdale, kindly arranged for me to meet, and interview, the author. As an admirer of his work, it proved to be an absorbing and wide-ranging conversation, encompassing Trevor’s early career as an actor, television presenter and copy-writer, his influences from film and literature and his richly varied output. This feature covers several topics relating to science fiction – which represents only a portion of his published work – and is based on notes and a transcript of that conversation; the words are Trevor’s own. 

Part One

On science fiction authors: Philip K. Dick to me is the absolutely consummate science fiction writer, above any other. I used to read loads of science fiction in the fifties; they had four or five really good monthly magazines – Astounding Stories, Galaxy – with about eight, nine, ten new stories by all the greats, Philip K. Dick, Blish, they were nine pence each – nine old pence. I remember I used to buy them at Rochdale Market, so I devoured all the science fiction. I’ll tell you a writer I did like – E. C. Tubb, a British writer, whenever there was a story of his on the cover I went for that right away, and he wrote hundreds of stories.

On perceptions of science fiction: It’s still a bit of a ghetto. I’ve written less science fiction than mainstream fiction but when people ask ‘what do you write?’ I say ‘well I’ve written thrillers, mainstream novels, science fiction’, they immediately latch on to the SF. It’s polarised. The people who read what they call ‘proper fiction’ are still very snooty about it. They say ‘I never read science fiction’ or ‘I never go and watch science fiction movies’. So I ask them, ‘you mean you’ve never seen Alien?, you’ve never seen Blade Runner? Have you seen Frankenstein?’– that’s all science fiction. Because they think of science fiction as rockets and men in lurex pyjamas with ray guns. You know Philip K. Dick doesn’t have any of that, it’s all in here [the head] with Philip K. Dick.

On meeting Philip K. Dick: I took the family to California and before I left I was talking to a fiction editor called Nick Webb, and he said ‘Phil Dick lives in California, Santa Ana, why don’t you pay a call on him?’ … He gave me Philip K. Dick’s address but he didn’t have a phone number. So I thought, when I get to Los Angeles I’ll look in the book. I didn’t want to just turn up, I wanted to ring him and introduce myself first — say I’m a writer from the UK, we have the same editor and so on’ – but I couldn’t find any [number]. I went through directory enquiries, but no, he wasn’t listed. 

So I’m driving along, this balmy evening in the summertime – I’ve got the right road but where is 1049 (or whatever it was)? I pulled in to the kerb at some Spanish stucco-type buildings … and I’d stopped at exactly the right number on the five-mile-long bloody road. I went up to the, kind of Spanish grill-work, and there were about a dozen mailboxes with buttons you could thumb and an intercom. And there it was – Philip K. Dick – his name was right there along with the others. Before I pressed the button I thought, ‘I’ve got to get my act together here quickly, say who I am, mention Nick Webb’ (because that was the only connection between us). I press the button, I’m about to speak … and the gate clicks open automatically.

I didn’t say a word, I went through the gate and up to the first-floor apartment – it was C1, I can still remember the number – and the door’s slightly open. Now if you’ve read any Philip K. Dick, you’re in a Philip K. Dick story right away. I thought I’m going to freak out here in a minute, this is an hallucination. So I pushed the door open and walked in to this tiny apartment, a two-room apartment – living room, bedroom, tiny bathroom – and Phil K. Dick is sat on the sofa … on his knee he had an upturned cardboard box lid full of little pots of snuff, about 10 or 12, and he was trying these, trying to wean himself off whatever he was smoking, or cutting down on the smoking ... anyway he’s sitting there and of course he looks at me and thinks ‘who the f**k is this?’ This total bloody stranger’s just walked in. And I’m still shell shocked because I’ve walked straight into Philip K. Dick’s apartment, which is cramped and shabby, it really is. So then I introduce myself, stumble out that I’m a science fiction writer from England, we both have the same editor, blah, blah … and he kind of visibly relaxed and invited me to sit-down (in a rocking chair). The explanation for the door being open was that minutes later another science fiction writer arrived [K.W. Jeter]. When he heard the buzzer, Phil Dick must have thought ‘oh that must be Kevin’ – so I’d turned up at exactly the same point in time and space when his friend was due to arrive.

Anyway, we sat and chatted for two or three hours. During the course of the evening the phone rang, maybe two or three times, and Phil went in to the bedroom to answer it. Kevin Jeter, who was a bit younger than me, he’d say ‘oh that’s wife number three’ or ‘that’s the current girlfriend’, or whatever. They were after money, I gathered, because he was paying alimony to about two or three wives – he had several children, I believe. He wasn’t with anybody at the time, he was living alone in this apartment. So gradually I was brought up to date on who the latest phone call was from, that’s how the evening passed. Nothing remarkable really but it was still memorable. … the only thing I do remember talking about – I don’t think we talked about writing particularly, as I recall – was about money. Writers tend to do that, talk about contracts, advances, how much are you getting paid? And it came as a shock that I was getting more than him from Panther in the U.K. Phil was only getting about two or three thousand dollars advance from Ace Books, his main American publisher, ‘cause a lot of his stuff came out in paperback – again, it was the science fiction ghetto, you didn’t merit a hardback, hardbacks are for ‘proper’ books, you’re a pulp fiction writer. But I do remember thinking, ‘this guy is the best science fiction writer in the world and he’s not getting as much as I am!’

On Blade Runner: All the recognition comes later, because he died in 1982; the year I saw him was 1980 and he certainly didn’t mention to me that they were making a film of it [Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?] … he didn’t mention the option, I’d have remembered that. What happened of course is that Ridley Scott, another big Philip K. Dick fan, made the film and Philip Dick saw some very rough footage… he died before the film was finished but he did like the bits he saw. I’ve read an interview where he said ‘you’ve captured my vision exactly on screen, what I had in mind, that acid rain Los Angeles kind of thing’ so he did have an inkling that they were going to make a good film of it.

[Trevor has also related this meeting fictionally, both on his website and adapted for his short story ‘The 5-Sigma Certainty’ in the anthology Lemistry]

On the series Electric Dreams – and other Philip K. Dick adaptations: it’s sad because there are some good people behind it, like Bryan Cranston who is an executive producer, a brilliant actor. I had high hopes for it … I think adapting Philip K. Dick for the screen must be very hard – Ridley Scott did a brilliant job with Blade Runner but the stories are so off-the-wall … Cranston and the rest are trying their best but there’s something essential missing … it was made with the best intentions, they actually got some good actors, but it’s just not catching the essence of the man and his work.

On Blade Runner 2049: I don’t usually walk out of films; I was severely tempted this time, except the only thing that kept me in was the thought ‘what’s Harrison Ford going to be doing in this?’ He’s billed up under Ryan Gosling, and of course he doesn’t come in until three quarters of the way through and it’s two hours and fifty minutes or something... So I’m waiting [for Harrison Ford], I had to sit through the rest of the f***ing film, it’s awful, it really is, it’s so loud and it really batters your senses. I like Ryan Gosling, he’s okay, he’s an actor I can live with, but if I go and see a film, first of all I make sure I’m going to like it, I don’t go to see a film I’m going to hate, so I don’t walk out of films – but I was sorely tempted to walk out on that. 

On A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater: it’s faithful to the book… it’s done very cleverly, that kind of computerised grainy quality you get. I’ve never seen another film made that way, using the same process [rotoscope].

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

SF History in Leeds, Scriven Bolton and Space Art

Thomas Simeon Scriven Bolton (1883-1929)
For this month’s post I decided to return to the theme of SF history in Leeds and the work of former Leeds resident Thomas Simeon Scriven Bolton (1883-1929). Bolton was a commercial illustrator and amateur astronomer, who lived in Bramley with his family from 1911.

As an illustrator, he specialised in astronomical subjects, also known as space art. Space art covered a range of drawing styles: illustrations of astronomical phenomena reproduced from telescopes; technical illustrations with overlaid graphics and text; and imagined planetary or lunar landscapes. Bolton produced all three kinds of illustrations and these were published in a number of newspapers, magazines and books in both the UK and North America.

Clive Davenhall, who has written an extended essay on Bolton’s art, suggests that he introduced several innovations into the field and describes his technique as follows:

Bolton developed an effective method for producing realistic lunar landscapes that involved making a model of the surface in plasticine or similar material, photographing it and then painting over the photograph. This approach was a development of the technique of modelling the lunar surface and photographing it under oblique light.

Being an amateur astronomer, Bolton also published many of his astronomical observations in science journals such as Nature and the Journal of the British Astronomical Association.

A lunar landscape by Bolton using the technique described above.

However, the SF connection can be found in Bolton’s work for magazines such as Popular Science. These types of publications tended to focus on topics of popular interest in astronomy, and on speculations about imagined worlds, planetary surfaces and undiscovered moons.

Bolton’s work thus shares affinities with the writings of SF fans and scientific enthusiasts, discussed previously on this blog, who saw their speculations as contributing to and advancing the sciences, particularly in the field of cosmology. A more detailed consideration of this topic is available here.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin

It was only a couple of months ago that The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin was featured on this blog - not for the first time - in my post about planetary physics and inter-world relations in SF. Le Guin's double planet system is rendered to brilliant effect in her exploration of power and freedom in the societies of capitalist Urras and anarchist Anarres, and this contrast provides the framework for the ambiguous utopian currents that run through the novel.

It is often these themes - of living and being otherwise - that have come to the fore in the tributes to Le Guin, following her death on the 22 January. Here, I'd like to give a round-up of those that struck me the most, alongside some interesting interviews and sources that I've come across during the last few years.

Among the more comprehensive and interesting obituaries of Le Guin are those published by the Guardian, the New Yorker and the New York Times. The novelist Julie Phillips, who's currently working on a biography of Le Guin, writes in the New Yorker, 'Le Guin never stopped insisting on the beauty and subversive power of the imagination. Fantasy and speculation weren’t only about invention; they were about challenging the established order'. Meanwhile, SF critics John Clute (Guardian) and Gerald Jonas (New York Times) draw attention to her distinctive narrative style. Jonas writes, 'the conflicts (her characters) face are typically rooted in a clash of cultures and resolved more by conciliation and self-sacrifice than by swordplay or space battles'.

Fellow writers have also paid tribute and, in some cases, shared their recollections of Le Guin; Indian SF writer Vandana Singh knew the author over a number of years and quotes the famous line from The Dispossessed, 'True journey is return', in the title to her blog post. She also recalls of their correspondence, 'our exchanges, though infrequent, were always interesting. We talked about writing, but also about our mutual interest in non-human others [...] We discussed the tendency of modern humans to succumb to the techno-fix, even for complex issues like climate change. I think it was clearer to her than to most people that technology by itself can never solve anything if the underlying paradigm remains unchanged'. In Neil Gaiman's piece, 'A Magic of True Speaking', he recalls reading The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time, and writes that the book 'opened my head and made me view gender differently - not as something fixed, nor even as something important, but as something mutable and less pertinent than what kind of person you are; the trilogy made me look at the world in a new way, imbued everything with a magic that was so much deeper than the magic I’d encountered before then'.

Ursula Le Guin (1929 - 2018)

What better way to end this post than to hear from the author herself. Some links to Le Guin's wonderful and thought-provoking public speeches and interviews include:

The BBC radio programme 'Ursula Le Guin at 85', featuring commentators including Neil Gaiman, in which Le Guin speaks about her upbringing and her early encounters with otherness through her Father's anthropological work with Ishi, the last Native American of his tribe.

A clip from Arwen Curry's 2018 feature documentary film about Le Guin called Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. In this clip, Le Guin talks about the creation of the Earthsea novels: 'I start pretty much with place, and then the people grow up in the place'.

Transcript of Le Guin's 'Left-handed commencement address' to the 1983 graduating class of Mills College (Liberal Arts women's college in Oakland, California): 'Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own [...] I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is'.

Le Guin's speech, upon receiving the National Book Awards' Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014. She says, 'I rejoice in accepting (the award) for and sharing it with all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long - my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction'.

Le Guin writing on the competing forces - or the yin and yang - of utopia, published on the Electric Literature site. In this piece, she suggests, 'my guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival [...] involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth'.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Arthur C. Clarke’s Centenary

December 2017 marks the centenary of the birth of a British science fiction pioneer, Arthur C. Clarke. A prolific author and visionary who anticipated the moon landings and the use of telecommunications satellites, he is perhaps best known for his association with Stanley Kubrick’s seminal psychedelic sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

With an interest in mystery, science and space travel from childhood, Clarke became a keen fan of science fiction in his adolescence, when he avidly read the emerging American magazines such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. His collection of these early sf publications totalled several hundred, before being dispersed during his travels in World War Two. In 1936, Clarke had moved from Somerset to London, where he worked in the Civil Service as an auditor at the Board of Education – he lived firstly at Newport Square, Paddington, and then from 1938 at 88 Gray’s Inn Road, Bloomsbury, where he shared a flat with his friend and fellow science fiction fan, Bill Temple. Already an active member of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), of which he was eventually to become Chairman, Clarke wrote to Sam Youds that, given the flat’s spacious rooms and central location, “no doubt many SFA [Science Fiction Association] and BIS meetings will gravitate here eventually.” The address 88 Gray’s Inn Road shortly became the Society’s headquarters. It was also here that Clarke, now writing in earnest (though primarily non-fiction), met fellow enthusiasts, including several influential figures in the formative years of UK science fiction. Among the visitors were E.J. Carnell and Walter Gillings, John Wyndham (then known as John Benyon Harris) and Maurice Hanson, editor of the UK’s first fanzine, Novae Terrae; Carnell, Clarke and Hanson were co-editors from the November 1937 issue, and it was the former who re-named it as New Worlds on becoming sole editor in 1939.

Walter Gillings, Arthur C. Clarke & E. J. Carnell at Leeds, 1937

Clarke was a delegate at what has been described as the world’s first science fiction convention, in January 1937 at Leeds, West Yorkshire, together with Carnell, Gillings, Hanson and the author Eric Frank Russell. It was at that meeting that it was decided to designate Novae Terrae as the official publication of the SFA. Clarke’s first published short story, ‘Travel by Wire!’ appeared later that same year in a fan magazine, Amateur Science Stories, edited by another of the convention attendees, Douglas W.F. Mayer at Brunswick Terrace, Leeds 2. Clarke’s wartime work in the RAF on a classified radar project, the prototype Ground Control Approach system, introduced him to the potential of micro-waves and radar. He prided himself on basing his fiction on scientific fact and anticipating developments in technology, notably the exploration of the moon and the launch of geostational orbital satellites for telecommunications. After the War, Clarke consolidated his scientific credentials by taking a degree in physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics at King’s College, London.

His 1948 short story, ‘The Sentinel’, originally submitted (unsuccessfully) for a BBC competition, was later adapted by the American Director Stanley Kubrick as 2001: A Space Odyssey – Clarke worked extensively with him on the preparation and writing, having been installed in New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel as early as 1964. Kubrick had abandoned the traditional screenplay; instead, as Michel Chion relates, he “decided to write a novel with Clarke that would serve as the basis for making the film.” As the production became ever more protracted, Clarke’s 2001 ‘novelisation’ was published separately, after the film’s release, to be followed by various sequels: 2010 (also filmed, in 1984), 2061 and 3001. He also gained wider recognition from well-received works such as Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars and Rendezvous with Rama.

Arthur C. Clarke with astronaut Neil Armstrong, 1970
Clarke moved to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1956, where he pursued a long-standing interest in deep-sea diving, but maintained his position as the UK’s best-known science fiction practitioner. The 1969 Moon landing, which Clarke had long predicted and regularly incorporated into his work, reinforced the scientific basis of his fiction, together with developments in telecommunications satellites. His status was confirmed by a knighthood in 1998 and, in his later career, lending his name to various TV shows investigating well-known mysteries and paranormal phenomena: Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980), Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe (1994). He died in March 2008.

Photographs from the 1937 Leeds Convention were taken by Harold Gottliffe, and reproduced with thanks to his daughter, Jill Godfrey, and Rob Hansen, whose site is an invaluable resource on the history of UK science fiction fanzines.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Earth-sized Planets Discovered Orbiting Nearby Star

It was around this time last year, when I posted about exoplanets and the possibility of habitable life beyond Earth. Perhaps, then, a year on, is an apt time to revisit this theme and one of my favourite space stories from 2017 – the discovery of exoplanets found orbiting Trappist-1. Trappist-1 is a red dwarf star, located 39 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. As such, it is one of our nearest neighbours in the Milky Way.

2015 was the year of the first discovery of Earth-sized planets orbiting Trappist-1 but, early in 2017, astronomers announced the news of additional exoplanets around the star, seven in total. The Guardian first published a story on the discovery in February, with follow-up stories in May and August.

The seven planets are, to date, the largest number of exoplanets found orbiting a neighbouring star, raising hopes that the search for alien life might be within reach using the next generation of astronomical telescopes. Trappist-1 shines with a light 2000 times fainter than our sun, meaning that the planets are more likely to hold liquid water and surface life. Researchers hope to obtain this information within the next decade.

One of the most exciting aspects of the story – alongside the possibility of discovering aliens, or a planet capable of supporting human life – was the incredible orbits of the planets and the prospect of the Trappist-1 star looming large in the sky from the planets’ surface (see illustration below). Because the planets are so much closer to the cool Trappist-1 star, each of their orbits is more compact than those of the planets orbiting our sun – the closest with a very short orbit of one and a half days, the furthest away taking 20 days.

Illustration of the view of Trappist-1 from the fifth planet by Nasa/JPL-Caltech.

These phenomena put me in mind of SF narratives that hinge on inter-world relationships, and the planetary astrophysics underpinning such stories. A famous example is Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’, a 1941 short story, later adapted into a novel with Robert Silverberg. The action takes place on Lagash, a planet located in a multiple star system with six suns, which keeps it constantly illuminated. The coming of an eclipse is a cause for concern for the planet's scientists, who fear that the general population will be unable to cope with the darkness. However, ultimately, it is the discovery of other stars and planets, which become visible during the eclipse, that sends Lagash's inhabitants into a frenzy.

The double planet (or binary planet) system of Urras and Anarres in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is another memorable example, in which the juxtaposition of capitalist Urras and anarchist Anarres functions as a device for Le Guin’s exploration of ‘ambiguous’ utopias. In a variation of this theme, the planet Solaris, in the novel of the same name, orbits a binary star system with one red-coloured and one blue-coloured sun.

Geographies of the double planet system Urras and Anarres.

Finally, returning to our solar system, the Twilight Zone episode, ‘Midnight Sun’, imagines a scenario in which the Earth's orbit has been disturbed, causing it to move slowly towards the sun. In the end, it transpires that this was only a fever dream experienced by the protagonist Norma, and the Earth is in fact, inexplicably, moving further away from the sun.

SF experimentation with different star systems and planetary configurations adds to the other-worldliness of the stories, even while often offering a critical lens on real world issues. The Trappist-1 discovery begins to shed light on just how distant or close such other worlds may be.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Communist Post-Apocalyptic Film

The dogged band of survivors in the aftermath of apocalypse – whether alien attack, environmental disaster, nuclear war, or worldwide pandemic virus – has become a preoccupation of science fiction, especially since World War Two and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Developing from H.G. Wells’ visionary The Shape of Things to Come, filmed in 1936 by William Cameron Menzies, the theme has proliferated in the post-War years, becoming a sub-genre in its own right; notable novels and film adaptations range from On the Beach and I Am Legend (filmed as The Omega Man) in the 1950s, through The Day of the Triffids, to the contemporary 28 Days Later and The Road. In the distinctive Eastern European version of the post-apocalyptic film, at its peak between the 1960s to the decline of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the last representatives of humanity are typically corrupt, cynical, disillusioned, and dishonest – the nobler qualities having vanished in the struggle for survival. The bleakest examples portray the ragged remnants of mankind, often diseased or mutated, reduced to scavenging among the post-industrial ruins, occasionally emerging from improvised shelters to salvage a few precious relics of civilisation – from libraries, museums, and schools. As they gather in claustrophobic and spartan enclaves waiting for the inevitable end, there is a stark contrast with the initial optimism which followed the October Revolution of 1917. 

In the early years of Soviet rule, the Bolsheviks actively encouraged the population to look forward to the expansion of Communism, spreading a Utopian message both on earth (‘world revolution’) and into the cosmos. The Party enlisted artists to promote their vision in state-sanctioned productions, notably the film Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), itself preceded by leading Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel Red Star, which effectively transplanted Marxism to Mars. That expansive mood had long since been dissipated; firstly by the dictates of ‘socialist realism’, aggressively promoted under Stalin, which disdained science fiction in favour of heroic portraits of the Soviet workers’ struggle, and later by economic stagnation and social decay, Cold War paranoia and pessimism. The 1966 Czech film The End of August at the Hotel Ozone depicts a group of virtually feral female survivors wandering the desolate countryside, anticipating a bleak, cruel and violent future. 1985’s O-Bi O-Ba (subtitled The End of Civilisation) by Polish writer/director Piotr Szulkin, is set in a particularly grim underground bunker, whose inhabitants endure a hopeless wait for a new Ark. Both represent a widespread disillusionment with the project of international Communism, and express subtle dissent against the central control exerted by Moscow over its satellite nations of the Eastern Bloc.


Above: Poster for Aelita

Right: Poster for Voyage to Mars

Though still closely overseen by the state after the death of Stalin, film-makers, artists and writers were able – often avoiding censorship by using science fiction as a metaphor – to articulate these fears. In 1972, Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky filmed Solaris, based on Stanislav Lem’s novel, set on a near-deserted, distant space station; a meditation on an aborted mission which paralleled the abandonment of the space programme. With the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbital flight four years later, there had been a brief rush to glorify the triumphs of the cosmonauts; after the American moon landing of 1969 effectively marked the end of the space race, the focus largely shifted from the conquest of the stars to the struggle for survival on an ailing earth. 

Tarkovsky returned to science fiction themes in 1979’s Stalker, adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future considers Roadside Picnic in terms of problematic or ‘failed’ Utopias, with professional scavengers, or ‘stalkers’, entering the Zones (sites of alien visitation, now sealed by the authorities) in search of bounty, though they run the risk of encountering inexplicable dangers and death. As it transpired, the filming locations close to the Estonian capital Tallinn proved deadly; an abandoned electrical generating station and the Jägala River, polluted by an upstream chemical works were linked to the early deaths from bronchial cancer of Tarkovsky, his wife Larisa, and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn. The Zone, mysterious centre-piece of book and film, was not only the name later applied to the contaminated area of exclusion around Chernobyl but, as James Norton noted in an article for Vertigo magazine, ‘Stalking the Stalker’, “was also the term by which the Gulag was known, as the Russian audience would have recognised.” 

Location map for Stalker

 The loose trilogy of post-apocalypse nightmares by Tarkovsky’s protégé Konstantin Lopuchansky – Letters from a Dead Man, Visitor to a Museum, and The Ugly Swans (another adaptation of a novel by the Strugatsky brothers) – focus unflinchingly on the decline of the Communist dream. This trio of films, the first two made in the later 1980s, are alike set in landscapes blighted by industrial pollution, radiation fall-out, and toxic waste, resulting in mental illness and physical mutations. These futuristic visions were thinly-veiled echoes of a catastrophic reality; the 2016 documentary City-40, exposing the once-hidden ecological devastation in one of the Soviet Union’s uranium-processing ‘closed cities’, was part of a gradual process revealing the extent of environmental destruction. Just as the locations of Stalker offered a haunting precursor of tragic things to come, the ravaged nuclear fall-out setting of Letters from a Dead Man pre-figured the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred in the same year as the film’s release, 1986. Combined with an escalating arms race between the USA and USSR, which by the 1980s threatened to become a full-blown conflict, world-wide apocalypse no longer seemed a film-maker’s fanciful notion.

Friday, 29 September 2017

African SF

A few months ago I met a researcher, based at SOAS University of London, who works on African SF and ecocriticism. Knowing little about these topics myself, I asked her to recommend some readings to me.

Going through the links and articles she sent me, I’ve been struck by how wide-ranging the field is. Like many forms of SF, some writers are reluctant to be identified with the genre. For example, one of the most prominent AfroSF writers Nnedi Okorafor has described her work as closer to ‘organic fantasy’: ‘What I’ve realized I’m writing is something organic. This type of fantasy grows out of its own soil’. Okorafor suggests several possible reasons for the fantastical elements in her fiction: ‘The first is my complex African experience, which on many levels has been a series of cultural mixes and clashes between being American and being Nigerian. The second being my personal world view. The world is a magical place to me’.

The cover of Okorafor's 2007 novel The Shadow Speaker.

These insights connect to another important theme in AfroSF; that of estrangement as a dimension of black African experience. Citing Greg Tate, the literary theorist Kodwo Eshun writes:

The form itself, the conventions of the narrative in terms of the way it deals with subjectivity, focuses on someone who is at odds with the apparatus of power in society and whose profound experience is one of cultural dislocation, alienation and estrangement. Most science fiction tales dramatically deal with how the individual is going to contend with these alienating, dislocating societies and circumstances and that pretty much sums up the mass experiences of black people in the postslavery twentieth century.
Eshun recasts SF in light of Afrodiasporic history and argues that this powerfully articulates experiences of dislocation, alienation and estrangement, all of which are longstanding tropes within the genre.
Environmental disaster and post-apocalyptic scenarios are also familiar terrain for AfroSF; Okorafor’s ‘Moom!’, Efe Okogu’s ‘Proposition 23’, Nick Wood’s ‘Azania’, Mia Anderne’s ‘Brandy City’ and Martin Stokes’s ‘Claws and Savages’ are exemplary here, and Matthew Omelsky proposes that they constitute a subgenre of ‘postcrisis fiction’ in their own right.

After reading about these stories and writers, I’m really interested to discover more of their work and the ways in which their science fictions apprehend the different possibilities and limitations of the present.

For an introduction to African SF, read Mark Bould's piece for this special issue of Paradoxa journal:

Thanks to Michelle Clarke for drawing my attention to this topic.