The Trelawny Collection #1: Edward Trelawny (A Biographical Sketch) – Richard Edgcumbe (1882)

I have been fascinated by the 19th century figure Edward John Trelawny (1792-1881) since the random discovery of a copy of Adventures of A Younger Son (1830) at a Kirkby Lonsdale book fair in the mid 90s. Subsequently I have acquired and read almost every published biography available. There are seven plus his own books, diaries and letters.

Now I aim to tell you about them on an occasional schedule, with intent to follow chronological order of publication.

Without rehashing the biography itself, a summary of Trelawny’s historical position can be seen in the subtitles of the biographies: The Friend of Shelley; Incurable Romancer; A Man’s Life; Lord Byron’s Jackal; Trelawny’s World.

Although Trelawny had been written about by various biographers of both Shelleys and Byron, the first book devoted to him came within months of his death, from Richard Edgcumbe in 1882.

It is a slim volume of under 36 pages which necessarily lacks the depth of later books. On the other hand Edgcumbe actually knew Trelawny in person. His eulogistic preface is clearly heartfelt.

Alas! The dauntless Cornishman who in his youth swept the seas with De Witt, who in his prime fought with Byron for the independence of Greece, and who in old age commanded the sympathy and respect of all true lovers of romance, has passed away. Never more shall we gather round the old man’s chair, and approach through him the mighty Dead.

Therein lies the problem. Edgcumbe is credulous, his Trelawny was his means of vicarious encounter with poets. There is no questioning of the older rascal’s tallest tales. (It looks to me if Richard Garnett writing for the 1911 Encyclopaedia Brittanica c.1898-1900 may have been the earliest to challenge Trelawny’s stories with active research.)

So Trelawny’s naval experience is taken as read with extensive quotes of the Adventures. Edgcumbe is rapturous on his hero’s poetic prose, gushing even. Moreso he adulates Trelawny’s honesty and judgement of the great poets though Edgcumbe’s interpretation of this differs from my own.

Edgcumbe relies on his own experience with Trelawny and the latter’s books too heavily, resulting in the occasional error such as a wrong and vague birthdate. He cites correspondence of Mary Shelley however which confirms the dual nature of Trelawny as exaggerating his own role whilst equally positioning himself standing in the wings. This, which some later writers see as fundamental grounds to distrust Trelawny, is unquestioned.

Ultimately A Biographical Sketch is weakened by brevity, and its absence of anything from the last 55 years of Trelawny’s life. One of his great loves, Claire Clairmont, gets no mention whatsoever yet Trelawny’s correspondence suggests he must have talked of her.

Edgcumbe’s love though occasionally engages and enlightens his subject in thought provoking ways. For the newcomer to Trelawny, don’t start here, but for the rest of us, a nice addition.

(The sketch portrait above is by Sir Edwin Landseer possibly after Thomas Phillips discredited portrait of Trelawny in Albanian dress. It bears no resemblance to the Trelawny that Richard Edgcumbe knew.)

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Langue [dot] doc 1305 — Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack’s 2014 time travel novel Langue [dot] doc 1305 is one of those SF novels that perhaps could only exist because of certain earlier books, but you don’t need to know them to appreciate this one.

From the present (ish) a bunch of Australian researchers travel back to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, a small village on a pilgrim trail in the South of France. For a year they live in remarkably large caves in the hillside above the village and undertake a variety of research there.

Meanwhile, Guilhem, a semi-disgraced knight has taken refuge in Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert whilst deciding his future. Only partially trusted by the villagers, Guilhem becomes an unofficial liaison between village and the time travellers whom the former consider, variously, fairies or demons.

Doctor Artemisia Wormwood has one of the better names in science fiction, made all the better for her choosing it herself. This gives you an idea of her personality. She is a late addition to the group, and the sole historian. And she is underprepared in many ways. Her notes aren’t taken back with her, as a last minute replacement, her linguistic skills are with a slightly different, Paris court Old French rather than the demotic local Middle French versions. And the scientists who make up the rest of the party don’t have faith in her.

You may, by now, have thought of echoes of Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book. Polack certainly did.

“This isn’t 1320, or even 1348, so there should be no plague.” My God, Artemisia thought, He made a Connie Willis joke. (p35)

Also, bluntly, Artemisia briefs the scientists:

This isn’t one of those SF novels where all the great people of history just happen to walk by. (The SF comments really get to me for some reason.) (p83)

Langue [dot] doc 1305 is explicitly a novel in conversation with the genre. Polack takes this further with her depictions of two communities, the village and the cave. Neither understanding the other, or being able to interact. The two outsiders, Guilhem and Artemisia, reflect this again as they circle their groups without fully crossing the threshhold.

The story of the novel is on the surface intensely quotidian. The daily, gossipy, squabbling, flirty, jealous lives of both groups form myriad passing subplots without forming an overarching drama. Petty rivalries over job roles, exacerbated by the secrecy of the cave, become power struggles and even anti-semitic jibes.

Meanwhile we see a France of 1305 that is mostly at peace, as far as Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert goes, where life is hard but not casually brutal. This is realism not grimdark. Langue [dot] doc 1305 is a story of lives in process not events in dramatic sequence. Polack is a medieval historian but doesn’t ladel her research across her novel so much as naturally depict a society of secrets.

There is another source for Polack’s writing here. The novel Artemisia has found in her files (rather than her expected resources) is Tristram Shandy. Later she lends it to fellow time traveller Geoff, reasserrting it as important in this book. Gillian Polack’s approach as the novel progresses shows signs of Sterne’s work. Shifting focus, incomplete set-pieces, nuanced references and asides. The punning name of a cat.

One night, outside the cave, Artemisia asks engineer Mac about their colleague Sylvia. “Is this her favourite place?” Mac indicates a particular rock. Implication is all.

Nothing is said, but much is told. This throughout is the charm of Langue [dot] doc 1305 The relationship between Artemisia and Guilhem, hints of flirtation and caution, meander to an obvious but less expected climax (no spoilers). Dramatic tension is in the history, we know what comes after, and in the literary challenges to our assumptions. Assumptions of history, of narrative drive, of individual and collective storying. Polack weaves nuance to all.

Langue [dot] doc 1305 is a stylistically clever, deceptively simple, and, informative novel. It is funny, sharp and sad. Polack’s analysis of internecine academia in the wild just feels right. Her depictions of real life in 1305 are far more convincing in their routine, their saints days, crop cycles and human interactions than the heightened intensity of forced drama in much fantasy.

Langue [dot] doc 1305 is a novel you should read if you think other writers’ are accurately basing their fantasy on the Middle Ages. It’s a novel you should read if you want a better view of how time travelling academia would (not) work than Connie Willis.

And it’s a really funny, enjoyable read.

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‘Sing my song, dance my struggle.’

Performance as truth-telling in Andrea Hairston’s SFF Writing.

Content Warning: at one point this paper uses historical terms as used by characters within the novel being discussed, that are now offensive. I have chosen to use them once to make a point that I hope is appropriate. My apologies in advance for any offence I may inadvertently cause.

Andrea Hairston is a playwright, theatre director and more recently novelist working in a sub genre she and her friends or fellow writers have dubbed ‘Folk Weird’. This paper aims to look at some of the ways Hairston incorporates performance into her novels, and a handful of short stories. Through this I hope to open up aspects of her work that utilise formal and non-formalised performances to demonstrate formulations of identity.

Her second novel Redwood & Wildfire (2011) is a historical fantasy set in the turn of the 20th century backwoods Georgia and Chicago. Redwood Phipps comes from a line of conjure women and dreams of the stage; Aiden Wildfire is part Seminole Irishman wracked with guilt over his failure to prevent the lynching of Redwood’s mother. When Redwood too is assaulted he helps her flee and she joins a minstrel group playing the ‘coloured circuit’ and eventually heading to Chicago where they become involved in the theatre there.

The wonderfully titled Will Do Magic For Small Change (2016) is a sequel of sorts to Redwood & Wildfire, set in 1980s Pittsburgh where teenage Cinnamon Jones also dreams of acting like her grandparents. She acquires a strange book that only reveals its words in stages, when appropriate. It is the story of an alien or goddess from elsewhere, and her companion, a Dahomean warrior woman in the late 19th century.

Her debut novel Mindscape (2006) is a complex of narrative scenes crossing times, locations and multiple view point characters. Set in a world mysteriously divided by an alien energy field into three zones, (Paradigma, Los Santos, and New Ouagadougou) at and just after the time of a peace treaty between zones. Travel between zones is via tunnels that occasionally appear in the barrier, or are created by the song spells of a few barrier griots. Amongst the cast of protagonists are griots, actors and politicians all chosing or forced into different roles.

Although I intend to focus here on Redwood & Wildfire and Will Do Magic For Small Change, there are aspects of Mindscape and short stories such as ‘Griots of the Galaxy’ and ‘Saltwater Railroad‘ that also relate to the topic.

In each of these novels an ensemble cast portrays both their inner self and the public personae they adopt, often alongside their additional stage persona. Between them they allow Hairston room to explore what W.E.B. Du Bois called the Double Consciousness of the African-American existence, and in the vein of Le Roi Jones to depict the historical cultural identities therein.

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the African American individual sensation of feeling as though your identity is divided into several parts, making it difficult or impossible to have one unified identity.

One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” – W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks (1903)

– W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks (1903)

It is no coincidence that a self-contained variant portion of Mindscape published in Marleen S Barr’s Afro-Future Females is re-titled ‘Double Consciousness’. In this section the Healer Thandiwe Xa Femi shares spiritual secrets and poison with her partner Robin Wolf and is condemned then to share a single body with his consciousness. The expectation is that nobody can survive this dual existence but together Thandiwe/Robin share another 75 years. Hairston makes literal DuBois’ argument. In the novel itself other characters experience a double consciousness in a literal sense through a haunted sensation or in formally attempting double roles. Mindscape is a carnival of voices where every significant character plays double roles as Hairston approaches her subject theatrically.

It is in Redwood & Wildfire that this is really opened out, leading to Will Do Magic’s expansive exploration of the storification of African-American experience, and an attempt at a retelling of the ‘lost’ histories therein. Both novels are stories of love, unconventional love throughout, but they are also stories of grief and loss. There is individual, personal grief: the first begins with the lynching of Redwood’s mother, the second with the funeral of Cinnamon’s half-brother and its parallel strand with another death. But there is a broader grief in play too, a cultural grief post-slavery and subsequent racial oppressions. (Mindscape also begins with an assassination of a spiritual leader and important political figure, Celestina Xa Irawo, and her spirit haunts events to come for some of that novel’s cast too.)

The eponymous Redwood has inherited her mother’s hoodoo abilities, but as the novel progresses she becomes reluctant to use them. Only with Wildfire does she feel able to be something of herself, whilst simultaneously he is unable to be hisself and drowns himself in whiskey. At first music binds them, his banjo and her voice, along with storytelling and books. They intermittently join with a bunch of travelling musicians to sing and party, so when Redwood kills a white man in the act of raping her, Wildfire helps her flee to join the musicians and he covers her tracks.

It is with what becomes known as The Act that Redwood’s dual identity develops. As a singer and performer she is drawn into a world of public and private identities. The Act perform as Nigger Minstrels (and a distinction is drawn between black performers in these stereotypical roles, and Coon Shows which are blacked-up white artists aping the blacks.) whilst playing Blues amongst their friends. At the same venues prostitutes work and long-legged beauty Redwood is almost drawn in too, though her height and clothing have her mistaken for a boy at times. Recruited by one such woman Elaine to act as protection by hiding in a wardrobe as Elaine entertains her client, Redwood learns about putting on a performance of another kind. Elaine tells her ‘The trick is to be elsewhere.’ And so eventually she comes to Chicago in 1910 joining both her ambitious businessman brother and his christian wife and a multi-racial theatre troupe.

This section of the novel becomes historically revelatory in exploring the early days of black theatre first and then cinema too. Redwood is taken to vaudeville where “a colored lady was singing His Honor the Barber in men’s clothes.” Such role-playing and disguise on stage echo the dual lives of those offstage. Pullman Porters earn extra money by acting ‘African’ on set, contrasting fake savagery with the equally fake veneer of the Pullman role, Persian acrobat Saeed is called on to play injuns and even the lion used for one scene turns out to be a lioness in a wig.

Hairston recovers the detail of this history, the black directors and actors trying to make tell their own stories. She references near-forgotten black performers (and more famous like Ma Rainey) and authors. Alice Dunbar Nelson’s The Goodness of St.Rocque is one recurrent reference, a writer who was caught between expectations of black and white audiences. Here then is the double consciousness of cutting the fool for public expectations whilst dreaming of telling serious stories. Redwood says at one point “White folk got adventure and romance. Why’re we stuck in the coon academy?

It’s a question still valid today
White folk got adventure and romance. Why’re we stuck in the coon academy?

It’s a question still valid today, as asked recently by rapper Sammus in her track ‘Perfect Dark’ where she demands ‘Black girls wanna have heroes too!’

Aidan Cooper, alcoholic, meanwhile reverts to his Seminole name Wildfire when he finally abandons Peach Grove, Georgia after an epidemic kills half the town. Taking Redwood’s orphaned sister Iris along, he too heads for Chicago. As they are helped on their way by local white Doctor and his black servant another pretense is unveiled. Doc and Clarence are gay lovers.

Aidan wondered how hard their lives in public must be. Men got strung up for doing what they did. What was their story? How did people like them find each other? Who dared the first touch, the first kiss?

Hairston shows a variety of mostly successful unconventional relationships in this way. Saeed’s brother is polygamous, Saeed is gay, Redwood’s brother George has a mistress and his wife Clarissa is jealous but aids the other woman in her difficult pregnancy. Redwood and Wildfire themselves have a tortured relationship because of their struggles to open their damaged selves up.

At every turn the black characters are pulled in two or more directions. Clarissa, the upstanding Christian Ladies Club society member, criticises Redwood’s hoodoo history, rejecting the supposedly uncivilised African in favour of American respectability but calls on her to help on medical needs and marital issues with her magic. George the businessman moves hired black men into a house he owns, paying them to behave badly so that white neighbours would move out and George could re-let the houses at a higher rent to black people. But then is persuaded to support Redwood’s film ambitions.

Throughout are those warring, unreconciled strivings DuBois described and the self-imposed weights that come with them. Individually and collectively Hairston’s character strive both in themselves, and as this is a historical novel as much as a fantasy, they strive against history as we know it. Hairston shows positive aspects, progress as Redwood realises her dreams within Chicago’s film industry, in the full knowledge that we readers know what bad comes after.

Seventy years later, Will Do Magic For Small Change opens in Pittsburgh, in 1984, at the funeral of Sekou. Cinnamon Jones clings desperately to his last gift to her, the mysterious book known as Chronicles. “Books let dead people talk to us from the grave!” she shouts. The Chronicles is a magic book to Cinnamon, only allowing her to read at certain times, and so far.

Opening The Chronicles is a Dedication.

Words are powerful medicine – a shield against further disaster. Writing might help me become whole again.

The Chronicles are set in Dahomey the old West African kingdom (now Benin) in 1892. A shapeshifting alien narrator the Wanderer materialises in a cave as Kehinde, a warrior woman or ahosi, flees pursuers carrying the dying body of her twin. As the Wanderer forms into a representation of dead Taiwo Hairston regales the reader with the history and politics of Dahomey. The setting is the Franco-Dahomey war which ultimately leads to the colony of French Dahomey in 1894. Kehinde is a Yoruba woman captured by the Fon people and trained as ahosi (sometimes known as Dahomey Amazons). Her double identity is established here. Taiwo the Wanderer, in a way reminiscent of Hairston’s SF story ‘Griots of the Galaxy’ adopts the local form and maintains alien identity too. Together the alien and the warrior seek Taiwo’s widow and unborn child, whilst avoiding rebel slaves and Fon hunters. As a twin Kehinde has a mystical power to go with her warrior strength and an unshakable bond to her other. When they find the widow Somso they eventually take ship to America. In Somso another aspect of the African-American double identity is shown. Like Clarissa in the earlier book, Somso is a Christian but the ifa divine wisdom of the Yoruba still plays on her.

In Pittsburgh Cinnamon’s mother Opal calls The Chronicles nonsense yet is also cognizant of the power of story. Her husband Raven lies in a coma after a shooting in a gay club. As the novel progresses her anger at his being there is balanced by realising he was protecting two lesbians. The story she tells in desire to protect her daughter changes like The Chronicles do.

Cinnamon herself is tall, awkward and unconventional even at thirteen. She wants to be an actress like her famous grandparents Redwood & Wildfire. Through a theatre group she befriends two other actors, Marie and German male lead Klaus, in what becomes a magical triumvirate on a quest to explore The Chronicles and to save Raven somehow. Their lives seem to grow together to reflect The Chronicles as new pages become legible, fluorescent pictures flow on the page that seem to tell what Seckou’s ghost calls a “perspicacious and intrepid crew” both what has just happened and what is happening. Meanwhile, amidst snowstorms and hospital crises, the ancestors arrive. Redwood and Aidan and Great Aunt Isis drive through closed roads and traffic to lend support. Note by this point if we follow a literal chronology Aidan is 105 years old, Redwood around 98.

Note by this point if we follow a literal chronology Aidan is 105 years old, Redwood around 98.
Note by this point if we follow a literal chronology Aidan is 105 years old, Redwood around 98.

Opal at one point alleges that the Chronicles were actually made up by Iris and Cinnamon shouldn’t take them seriously. She also suggests that they are Seckou’s fantasy that led him into trouble. In both novels there are conjure letters from Redwood and Iris which read differently to their intended recipient, but Cinnamon and crew believe what they read to be real. Magic and real.

This brings me back to Hairston’s definition of Folk Weird from a profile on Lightspeed magazine:

My work is about putting aliens and haints in the same story, or spirits and wormholes, supercomputers and the Baron of the Boneyard. So characters who are trying to find what is love, truth, and possibility for them in a complex world.”

These novels in particular bring together history and myth, grief and hope, into a variety of performances. Hairston also quotes Brecht

Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.

So when Redwood argues with film directors about the need for Black shows of love and adventure, Cinnamon and the crew fight for a roles in theatre that fits their visions and desires and reflects their lives. “Cutting edge theatre isn’t a moribund art form.” Cinnamon challenges rich donors, “It’s effervescent.” They hammer their future into shape.

Cutting edge theatre isn’t a moribund art form.” Cinnamon challenges rich donors, “It’s effervescent.” They hammer their future into shape.

As a theatre writer -director -performer Hairston is fighting her cause here, but in tying this all to untold history she is fighting for African-Americans too. Taking the hidden building blocks of that forgotten Chicago film industry (as one review notes, who knew?), that forgotten African empire of powerful women, that hidden historic context Hairston shapes an afro-future of creativity and power.

Not for nothing are these novels each subtitled “a novel of what might have been

She takes Brecht’s hammer to Dubois’ double consciousness and acknowledges LeRoi Jones historification to offer imaginative truths up for a visionary future. In Blues People Jones describes in detail the way field songs evolved from West African communication forms and thence into the Blues. He wrote in the early 60s but the further rise of this form into rap is also clear, and Will Do Magic also hints at this.

Cut your chains and you become free; cut your roots and you die.” says The Wanderer in the dedication to The Chronicles. There is a recurrent peripheral character in the Cinnamon strand, a homeless person with a trolley and a sign saying Will Do Magic For Small Change. It seems this may have been the person who gave Seckou the book in the first place. The Wanderer reaches Pittsburgh 90 years after meeting Kehinde in the spirit cave of Dahomey. For Cinnamon here are roots and chains, her future is based on magic from her Seminole and conjure woman ancestry, and her budding polyamorous bond with Marie and Klaus. Like her grandmother Redwood she plays roles to shape her world, uses her magic and her love to create a world to live in. Performance and storytelling are the tools for overcoming the double consciousness, for maintaining the roots and adapting them to the new future rather than rejecting them to conform to the culture enforced upon them. Reflected by the various trio relationships the differences combine to form a third, stronger consciousness. What might have been?

What might have been? What might become?

Andrea Hairston’s novels are published by Aqueduct Press along with Lonely Stardust a collection of essays, plays and a speech.

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Just rewatched Trigger, the 2010 Bruce McDonald film about two former bandmates meeting up a decade after the band broke up.
One now works in LA in TV, the other is still in Toronto working on new songs but without a deal.
Their old friendship bonds clash with their old grudges, and their different addictions and approaches to rock music bubble and simmer.
It’s mostly just the two of them talking, arguing and sparking off each other over the span of a night around a tribute show for their former band Trigger.
There are echoes of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (a film McDonald acknowledged as his template.) as well as McDonald’s own earlier work Hard Core Logo. Trigger is written by Daniel MacIvor and almost feels written for stage as much as film, with its set pieces dominating the film’s 78 minutes. In many ways it’s a far better sequel to Hard Core Logo than the disappointing HCL 2.

So at this point you’re thinking you don’t like rock band movies, or you hate talky films, or films that really look more like staged plays. So what makes Trigger special?

The stars are the late Tracy Wright, who died of pancreatic cancer shortly after finishing the film, and Molly Parker. Trigger were a female band, Bikini Kill’s Rebel Grrrl makes the excellent soundtrack. And by my estimate less than about 3 minutes of the film *fail* the Bechdel Test.
Yes two women talk about careers, addictions, betrayals and shared experiences without talking about men. At all. There’s a homoerotic hint or two, though Vic (Wright’s still defiantly indie guitarist) has a male partner (a typical Don McKellar cameo) but is hit on by another woman and Kat (Parker’s manipulative but insecure Hollywood ex-singer) has a momentary fantasy scene with several strange men. Vic’s fantasy scenes are a haunting temptation to pick up the needle again. Kat’s are around booze.

Even when Vic talks about love it’s almost metaphysical and specific guys are barely acknowledged. Instead we see, as much as are told despite all the words, something more complex between these women. They’re idealistic, cynical, fatalistic, romantic, tragic and comic in turns.

MacIvor’s script is witty and sharp (“a drunk is just a messy junkie”, “rock’n’roll is an odour!“) but the chemistry between the leads makes it live. Other cameos from Callum Keith Rennie and Julian Richings are almost just breathing points as Parker and Wright are so dominant.

The result is a film that is simultaneously jaded and cynical and romantic and uplifting about the power of rock’n’roll and friendships. It goes nowhere but visits everywhere along the way. As Vic says “There is no everything. There’s just me and my everything.”

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A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson 1994

I first interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson in 1994 around the publication of his landmark work Red Mars. This reprint may be of interest.

Ten years ago, when Terry Carr’s Ace Specials series of first novels was launched the authors chosen to head the list were all newcomers with just a handful of stories behind them. Each had already demonstrated considerable ability and originality in that time, and Terry Carr expected great things of all of them. The second and third authors on that list were Lucius Shepard and William Gibson, both of whom have more than fulfilled early promise. Ahead of them was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore, a novel as different from Green Eyes or Neuromancer as they were from each other, but equally full of potential and achievement. Since then Kim Stanley Robinson has published another five novels, each one distinct and original, and over thirty short stories collected in three anthologies. Now his latest project is attracting attention from everybody and anybody remotely interested in Science Fiction.

Kevin McVeigh: It begins with Red Mars, an epic, widescreen account of early terraforming attempts on Mars, and continues through Green Mars and finally, Blue Mars. The whole project will be complete sometime in 1995, but Robinson has been thinking about Mars for over a decade already.

Kim Stanley Robinson “I started to do a bit of reading about Mars for short story ideas, standard short story research. I liked the look of the landscape that was in the books of photographs that were coming out after the Viking landers. The US Government puts out coffee-table size books for about $5. I got lost in them immediately, imagining walking around them. So that was the first part of it. I had written the first and third parts of Icehenge, and had gotten an offer to turn in the novel, and I knew the middle story would take place on Mars. So at that point, I had the books, I had the interest and suddenly I had a story that had to be on Mars. This must have been about ’83 or so, and it’s been with me ever since.

Red Mars took about two-and-a-half years to write, during which time I was taking care of my toddler son full-time so I was only going at about 50% speed. It was a scattered process, especially the first year-and-a-half. Actually all the way up to the last 90 days or so. It was hard to get any regular writing schedule, but two-and-a-half years was fairly rapid given the circumstances”

We meet in the bar of a London hotel immediately after an interview for The Daily Mail. Serious, quality SF in the tabloids? Amongst the reasons why Red Mars is receiving so much attention is the curious coincidence of several other high-profile Mars novels appearing around the same time. Another newspaper, The Guardian, reminds us today of George Bush’s pledge to put a man on Mars by the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landings in 2019. Robinson is sceptical, and doesn’t see this as a factor in his book or anybody else’s.

“It would be much too quick a response, and that was all hot air anyway. There is no monetary backup in any sense to that statement. That was just PR, and he forgot it as soon as he said it, and so did everybody else. I think that what this is, is a response, somewhat delayed but that’s the way these things work, in the way people have to assimilate information, to the Viking and Mariner missions. We’re finally beginning to come to grips with the incredible landscape that we just learned about.

When you think about a whole world being clarified for us only 15-20 years ago, well that’s not very much time. You need that much lead time to collect your thoughts, to get intrigued, to write the books. It may be any odd coincidence but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these other Mars novelists had gone through a similar variation on the experience I had. And now here they all are in a row, there must be at least half a dozen, maybe ten, in this short period of time. Generally it is good for all of us, it creates a mass interest that hopefully will set readers off to go into all of them, maybe do a comparative thing, get a deeper insight into Mars. I think it’s a good thing.”

Writing about Mars may indeed be a good thing, but should we be considering a mission there? And if we should, can we do it? Red Mars is filled with the ethical debates on terraforming, and tremendous technical detail on how it might be achieved.

“It is a luxury project, isn’t it? I think it could go either way. There isn’t an absolute economic necessity for doing it, but we do have both the Russians and the Americans with massive aerospace industries from the Cold War that no longer have any reason to be, but can’t be just left to crash and burn, because we will have a major depression, they earned about $300 billion a year for the US, you can’t just cut off industries that are earning that much. So I could conceive of a manned Mars mission as being the glamour project that the very best aerospace industries get in on, and the rest get set on other tasks like Rapid Transit, public transport, replacement for the automobile-type projects. I can see a scenario where it might happen without there being any necessity for it.”

Robinson sees the practical side of these things with a clear vision. The early scenes of Red Mars which cover the voyage to Mars convey the nature of life in a confined artificial environment in terms of almost Soap Opera-style relationships.

“The Russians have done a lot more with this than we have. NASA likes to pretend that none of the Russian space data is worth a thing, they don’t learn from it. That’s one of the reasons why NASA is a crippled and incompetent agency right now. The Russians have really put a lot of study into this. They’ve put men and women up there for very long periods of time in these orbiting canisters and surely if anyone were going to crack they would. In fact, interpersonal relationships between cosmonauts have often been really strained. They’ve had fights, tantrums, refusal to talk to the ground crew for weeks on end—there’s been some radical stuff out there amongst the cosmonauts and the Russians have faithfully kept records that are available to all, they haven’t tried to make secrets out of it.

Some of the cosmonauts have even written books saying “It’s amazing how much I hated him; I wanted to murder him up there.”

What the Russians have said is that you need to create an environment that will have seasonal changes, daily biological rhythms and that you have to create an environment that will give the body a fair bit of gravity. This is why I think they are going to have to spin their ship or tether two ships, or something to get gravity. I don’t think it can work weightless because the Russians have found that if you spend a long time weightless, you’re useless for a good long time at the end of it, possibly even permanently. So I think if you create a little gravity, and diurnal rhythms, a little wind, a park, some greenery and if the ship is big enough then I think they could hold it together. People are so adaptable. And if they’re goal directed they can make it. You know, 148 days and we’re there . . . 147 days and we’re there . . . You can bear strange conditions.

Take the British in Antarctica, those were truly bizarre attenuated sensory-deprivation conditions on those expeditions, the classic one is Scott, and those guys were running Gilbert & Sullivan plays and getting along famously, they might have been bizarre British public school GA Henty types. I mean obviously these guys were crazy on some level but they were cordial to each other, they had great esprit de corps. With models like that and even sailing ship crews, I think they’ve proved that it can be done.

One of the many ironies in Red Mars comes when the psychiatrist, Michel, points out that crew for this mission need to be sufficiently eccentric to do the job without being too eccentric for others to live with. Then he is selected himself. That was a little frivolousness which points up the fact that he is going to get much stranger as things go on. I do think that the requirements for the people in this are in many ways a set of double-binds, essentially they’re asked to be absolutely extraordinary people but at the same time, as social creatures completely ordinary and unabrasive and really congenial.

So you’ve got a whole list of things you can separate out—they have got to be very physically fit, and yet they need to have 35 years’ experience in their field so they’re going to be a bit older, so maybe they’re not so physically fit. All down the line if you array the demands for selection for this trip they tend to fall out into double-binds, mutually contradictory requirements, and I don’t think they’ll solve that. I think they’ll send people who are pretty good at making certain parts of their nature. This was my working principle. So all of them lied to the selectors, and I think some of that will happen.

NASA in particular has been completely unrealistic about human relationships in space. They’ve got this married couple that went up in the Space Shuttle last week, the first time that’s happened, and they say “We’ve got them sleeping on opposite shifts, there’s no way we want to talk about sexuality.” This is so ridiculous, we finally have a married couple in space, why not finally break the record. I think the cosmonauts probably have done it, I think there has been sex in space, but the Americans are like “Oh God!” They have to make it clear in Press Conferences that it’s the last thing they would consider. It’s this ridiculous, really stupid puritan ethic in America. If the Americans try to set up this project there’s just going to be this artificial, pure, false scene that’s just going to fall apart real badly when real people get up there alone.”

In the book, when segregation is broken it does come from the Russian side.

“Well that seemed realistic to me. Americans are extremely provincial and in their sense of being the imperial power of the world, their lack of other languages, they resemble the Brits of the 19th century.”

There is a great deal of ideology espoused in Red Mars as in all Robinson’s novels. He has a reputation as a ‘leftist’ writer, something he describes as ‘fair,’ but his characters cover a wider range of viewpoints.

“One of the things that got me into writing novels is a really intense ambivalence and a tendency to be Devil’s Advocate. Any time I make any kind of categorical statement part of my mind will instantly object and ask ‘isn’t the opposite pretty much true or at least defensible?’ In my own mind arguments are raging all of the time. If I can get then down on paper, I can do a plausible job of representing these different points of view that people hold. I have some beliefs that are fundamentally deeply held and consistent and I suppose I am trying to push them in the novel as a whole, but I am also deeply committed to the notion as letting my characters have their say and become as real as I can. They have to be allowed their own viewpoints.

My politics are fairly solid in the book, it’s a statement which is relatively unambiguous, but I myself am really ambivalent about this notion of terraforming. In a way it’s a desecration of a landscape that’s already there, that’s already fantastically beautiful. So I am completely in sympathy with the ‘Reds’ in the book who are opposed to terraforming as an act of desecration. On the other hand there is a part of me that thinks that the terraforming project is just a spectacular and wonderful religious act, a kind of life-giving to another world.

A Mars that will still be Mars and yet have this biosphere on it. And there will be the high altitude areas like all of the landscapes on Earth that I love super-represented by this product of terraforming. So I really like both viewpoints and feel very strongly about them. This may be one of the driving impulses for writing this monster long thing. That I cannot plump down on one side or the other, that I feel all these things so strongly that I try to separate these views out into individual characters and let the battle commence.”

Pacific Edge, Robinson’s previous novel, contains many scenes set inside the meetings of a Neighbourhood Association. Since then the author says he has become involved in that localised, micro-political activity in his own neighbourhood. Nevertheless, despite falling into what he describes as ‘the most tedious scenes’ from his own book, most of his political work and expressions is through his books. I ask him if he feels subversive.

“I would like to fancy myself so. I would like to advocate and influence people towards certain underlying standards. I make my best effort but we live in a historical moment where subversion is very difficult. Post-modern culture is essentially omnivorous and can digest any supposedly subversive and revolutionary act and turn it into just one more event, one more entertainment. To be truly subversive is now a challenge to bring pertinence to any one cultural act.

I could stand on the parapets and scream bloody murder about how we have to bring down this ridiculous, unecological capitalist monster that we live within and you’d get ‘Film at 11. Look at this there’s a loony on the parapets, how interesting.’ And then the next commercial would be for deodorant, and there I’ll be, part of the entertainment machine. Has anybody changed one iota? Probably not. So I would want to be subversive. I do believe we live in a global, capitalist economy that is profoundly destructive to many parts of society, and I think we’re in severe trouble so I want to try to subvert the dominant order right now. But I must say that it is no longer obvious how to do that.”

One way is to confront people’s preconceptions, as Robinson does by reversing the conventional roles and usual symbology of Greens and Reds in Red Mars. In particular, the use of Reds as sympathetic characters from an American viewpoint is subversive.

“I really do what I can in an attempt to salvage what is left of the socialist project. I constantly reiterate in my public talks and whenever I get the chance, that to throw out baby socialism with the poisoned bathwater of Stalinism is a big mistake. There are some obvious principles of fair play and justice that are expressed in the socialist utopian dream that are being trampled badly by the looting and pillage of capitalism. So I am a Red. At this moment in history it feels like a dangerously stubborn refusal to accept certain facts of history, but I’d just like to say that those stalinist territories, those totalitarian parts of the world which tried to impose parts of socialism—and not very many of those—were a disaster for socialism. Now any opponent of collective just distribution of the world’s resources, and of human work, can easily say, well, remember Stalin. Remember the disaster of the Soviet Union, it’s all going to happen again, if you try to be fair, so let me continue to rape and pillage and abuse the human workers of the world. So we’re living in the shambles of a bad century here, and you just have to keep making those little attempts to reconnect. This is why I think working at the Neighbourhood level is useful. It’s all you can do and I don’t want to give up and do nothing.”

Robinson’s novels also contain little subversions of SF tropes and icons. Pacific Edge (and the whole Orange County trilogy [now renamed Three Californias]) creates a Heinleinian Wise Old Man figure in Tom, but then he is killed off.

“Tom had been in all those three books and it seemed like he needed to have a good send off. he was very old and I felt that at that age a drowning was a happy way to go compared to many of the alternatives, so I thought I was doing him a favour at that point.

One of the ways that people attack utopia is to say that it would be boring, life will no longer be interesting because everything will be bland. From Huxley onward this has been one of the standard attacks on utopia, but my feeling is that there are still two things that can go wrong in an Oresteian sense. A can love B, B love C, C can love D, D can love A and this can be extremely painful for all four characters, and that this will happen even if social justice is achieved everywhere. And secondly, people are going to die, and then their loved ones are going to be left behind. So both for the person who dies, at least in their dying moments I imagine they’re going to be pretty upset about it, no matter how much social justice there is, and their loved ones are going to be left behind are going to grieve their loss and this is about as much tragedy as human beings need.

You don’t need five year olds dying of hunger to make human life dramatic and interesting. That’s a degradation of life. I’m a utopian and I believe that utopia can still be utterly dramatic and having Tom drown was one of many ways of making this ideological point. It is scary how much of the novel becomes political when you begin to analyse it at this level rather than just pure story.”

This also fits in with the way Robinson’s stories rarely have an absolute resolution which maybe the Wise Old Man could have offered. They are complete in themselves, but rather than end they tend to shift into a new phase. The author sees a structure in his work, but admits that others have reported differently. he has no interest in the sort of resolution where all things are neatly tied up and chopped off, seeing them as “less true to the way we really live.”

“I did add that sentence at the end of A Memory of Whiteness ‘Back To Mars’ which I now find is a very prescient thing for me to have finished that novel on. I wanted to imply that that story was also going to have its consequences after the death of Johannes. That he might turn into some kind of religious figure. And ‘Back to Mars’ has proved to be a very useful instruction to myself.”

Indeed. And whilst Kim Stanley Robinson is not attempting to write any kind of cohesive Future History, there are connections between his works. Some are direct, the novella ‘Green Mars’ and short story ‘Exploring Fossil Canyon’ may be related to the Red Mars sequence through the character of Roger Claybourne (a descendant of Ann Claybourne of Red Mars First Hundred?); others contain parallel scenes revealing recurrent interests of the author. I asked him about a few of these.

Green Mars’:

“The novella will not be in the novel. I might eventually include it in a volume of sidebar material. I think that would be a nice addition without being to much of an obvious commercial rip-off. Other than that it won’t have much relation, and in fact some of the historical details in that novella are going to turn out to be really wrong, but that’s life. I have no desire to achieve a consistent future history.”


“If you’re someone who does climb, what I do is not quite climbing. I scramble, I walk, I backpack. I rarely, if ever, have been roped up. But I do love mountains. I have an irrational passion for being up amongst them, so I feel that it is important to try to get that in because it is so important to me. It’s hard to figure out how. That’s one of the attractions of this Mars scenario—it’s one gigantic, above tree-line mountainous place. there aren’t mountain ranges per se on Mars. There wasn’t any tectonic action to speak of, but it a wild and mountainous place.


” It’s important in my life, I do a lot of it. I just think that all of these activities of the body—climbing, swimming, sex.—all ought to written about more because we’re not just our minds, our intellects. It’s interesting to write about it, and I think it’s interesting to read about it. So I stick it in. Individual sports tend to be known only to one country so it’s a little bit dangerous to write about specifics too much but I’ve thought it’s been worth a try a couples of times because you can always understand the general emotions of the sporting activity even if you don’t understand the particular rules of that sport. These things ought to be written about, especially in SF which started out as such over-rationalised intellectual exercises of the genre. it needs to be physicalised, and a lot of other writers are doing it and I think that it is a great addition to the genre.”

To hear Kim Stanley Robinson talk, as to read his stories and his novels, is an experience which challenges and enthrals at the same time. One is left full of wonder and made restless by the questions arising from that wonder. Already he is one of the most interesting writers that SF has ever seen, and speaking to him there is a strong sense that he has a lot left to say, that he relishes the prospect as much as we might, and that is going to be a great addition to the genre.

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Karen Joy Fowler: This Map IS The Territory

From the Attic IX: This Map IS The Territory originally published on the sfgateway blog.

19 November 2014

Rereading the stories of Karen Joy Fowler I am made aware of some things I already knew. That is not entirely the paradox it seems. In her collection Black Glass almost every story appears to incorporate an early statement asserting some degree of unreliability.

“One day Lily decided to be somebody else” (Lily Red)

“even if everything in it was true when written, it was entirely possible that none of it was true now” (Lieserl)

“I have learned to distrust words, even my own” (Letters From Home)

“Of course it was an illusion” (The Brew)

“I couldn’t tell you in what year or in what sequence anything happened, only in what season.” (Go Back)

If such a pattern were not enough, Fowler admitted in an interview on Strange Horizons that she deliberately wrote her debut novel Sarah Canary with the intent that Science Fiction readers would read it as Science Fiction and mainstream readers would see mainstream fiction. But this wilful ambiguity is not just a broadening of her market; it actually reflects a crucial aspect of Sarah Canary‘s meaning. Set in the Pacific North West in 1873, Sarah Canary tells the story of the eponymous mystery woman who appears at a Chinese logging camp. Through a series of occasionally too overtly staged set pieces Sarah Canary encounters, or more pertinently is encountered by, a motley collection of borderline outsiders who each see her, and attempt to exploit her, in their own ways. The passive tense I used above is important I think because she never speaks and is drawn into events by those she meets. As John Clute notes, Sarah Canary traces “the ways in which it might be possible to understand, and to misconstrue” but does it while “allowing no SF premise to shoulder into the knowledge of the text.”

It makes great aesthetic sense to me, therefore, that a novel about people imposing identity on the Other is created in such a way that readers impose genre upon it. Sarah Canary is alien, strange and a tabula rasa to those who meet her, but is she an Alien? Decide for yourself.

There are other Karen Joy Fowler stories that also approach genre SF tangentially at best, like Sarah Canary concealing their nature beneath delicate filigree realism. “We discern symmetries, repetitions, and think we are seeing the pattern of our lives. But the pattern is in the seeing, not in the dream.” (Sarah Canary) Her stories are “part map, part picture” (Duplicity) Her latest novel, the deeply moving and provocative We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year and most shops are shelving it away from SF.

Most infamously Fowler’s controversial Nebula Award winning story “What I Didn’t See” has no SF elements in its body. It is the story, told in hindsight, of an African expedition to view and hunt gorillas and a mysterious disappearance of one of the women in the party. Fowler’s narrator challenges her own narrative at several points, questioning her memory and assuring us that her attitudes have changed over time. Beneath that there is also an engagement with SF tropes, and we are informed of this by the titular echo of James Tiptree Jr‘s “The Women Men Don’t See” and our knowledge outwith the story of Tiptree’s anthropologist mother, Mary Hastings Bradley. In the way the expedition leader views the women of his party I almost see Fowler putting into fiction parts of Joanna RussHow To Suppress Women’s Writing. On all these levels it is a powerful, thoughtful, evocative and beautiful story, as so many of Fowler’s are.

That looking back in hindsight also typifies a lot of Fowler’s oeuvre. Her novels after Sarah Canary, The Sweetheart Season (about WWII Women’s baseball) and Sister Noon (again in the 19th century) are historical set novels. The Jane Austen Book Club may have a contemporary setting but obviously reflects back on Austen and the Regency era. This use of studying romantic fiction as plot device accompanied by commentary is something Fowler also did in one of her most Science Fictional stories “The View from Venus.” If these stories make it clear Fowler is invoking a dialogue between now and the past of these books, and between us and the books, that adds weight to the case for “What I Didn’t See” engaging with SF and Tiptree.

These historical stories are not nostalgic however, though moments of wistfulness for futures missed are inevitable if not predominant. In ‘Lieserl’ Albert Einstein receives a series of letters from his wife Mileva about their daughter Lieserl who in real-life seems to vanish from the records. Fowler plays with relativity here as scientific theory, metaphor and perhaps, pun, whilst her story explicitly records the neglect of the scientist for his wife and daughter.

They are the characters on the edge of existing narratives, frequently women, occasionally people of colour, that Fowler gives voice to. Gulliver’s wife, left behind whilst he travels (The Travails); Tonto who defends the public hero at the same times as complaining about him, (The Faithful Companion At 40); the young Elizabeth I who “should have been a boy” (The Elizabeth Complex)

Karen Joy Fowler is a writer SF needs, a writer who probes at the genre and re-imagines its futures. Her work engages with the world, with the genre and with the reader but, as noted, ambiguously and frequently asymptotically. Relativity informs the plot of ‘Lieserl’ and Sarah Canary reflects perceptions of women in perceptions of a novel. ‘Game Night At the Fox & Goose’ has clever dialogue where the bar patrons’ commentary on the football game can read as discussion of the pregnant protagonist’s predicament. (As an aside this story has a lot of overlap, albeit from different perspective, with James Patrick Kelly’s “Dancing With Chairs” which was published the same month, Fowler in Interzone, Kelly in Asimov’s.)

So, Karen Joy Fowler, witty, ambiguous, engaging, informed; great prose, and unique approaches to old stories. The old maps bore the legend “Here be Dragons”; well, there may or may not be dragons in Karen Joy Fowler‘s stories, but if you’d like a guide to take you off the edge of the map but who might leave you there to find a way back to what might not be quite where you departed from anyway, well Fowler is the one I choose.

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Patti Smith in Kendal 2007

In the summer of 2007 Kendal Brewery Arts Centre ran a Women’s Arts Festival featuring a host of great writers, artists and performers. One of those was Patti Smith who turns 71 today.

On the Friday night she played the Coronation Hall in Ulverston with her band, in what was billed as the European premiere of her covers album Twelve. It was a great show, her shows always are, with the highlight being the gorgeous antiwar rage of ‘Peaceable Kingdom’

The night before, though, she was scheduled in the tiny Malt Room of The Brewery for a poetry reading so at the last minute i went along. It wasn’t a sell out and seating was unallocated so there I was front centre puzzling over a couple of acoustic guitars onstage.

On time, Patti Smith walked on to the low stage. Dressed in skinny jeans, men’s jacket and white shirt, her iconic look, she spoke to about a hundred of us..

“Hi, this is going to be something different. It’s supposed to be a reading but since the guys are here we thought we’d work up some acoustic versions of a few songs we’ll be doing tomorrow night.”

A few oohs and applause around the room. Then she pulled a battered notebook from her back pocket.

“But first, this…”

“Sixteen and time to pay off…”

Ten feet from me Patti Smith snarled and ranted through the b-side of her first single from 1974. ‘Piss Factory’ live, unaccompanied and in our faces in a small room is one of the most incredible moments of nigh on 40 years of gigs.
Afterwards I chatted with the legendary Lenny Kaye (who turned 71 himself three days ago). Come on, Lenny Kaye, chatting in the Brewery Malt Room. That’s amazing enough but Patti came by.

I have no idea if I said anything coherent or total gibberish but, you know, Patti Smith. What do you say?

Graciously, she signed my books and thanked me for coming. I think I said something about how great she was and “see you tomorrow night.”
Happy Birthday Patti Smith.

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