What Have the Aliens Ever Done For Us? Some thoughts on Judith Moffett’s Holy Ground Trilogy.

Aliens remain a potent symbol in the literature, usually now in Earthbound stories in which their alienness is intended to cast a satirical, ironic or revealing light upon our selves and our society. — Paul Kincaid, Call and Response p44

Judith Moffett’s Holy Ground Trilogy describes events following aliens called the Hefn coming to Earth and attempting to stop humans destroying the planet. “This book is the record of what happened to some of us because the Hefn came.” writes the character Nancy Sandford in the prologue section of The Ragged World entitled ‘The Hefn on Earth’.

This deliberately simplistic description obscures a salient point. The Holy Ground Trilogy has aliens throughout, they play many significant roles, and yet the trilogy is not really about the Aliens.   It is about relationships. Deeply embedded in Moffett’s work are analyses of religion, sexuality and environmentalism.  The personal is political amidst issues of human to human relationships, and human engagement with the planet.

The trilogy isn’t conventionally structured, book one The Ragged World (henceforth TRW) is a ragged (ahem!) fix-up incorporating five previously published stories   There is a diversity in these stories that whilst some of Moffett’s themes are established here they aren’t intensely foregrounded.  Hindsight from book two Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream (TimeStream) and the prologue change readings of The Ragged World by tying things together more. Then final volume The Bird Shaman (Bird) shifts character emphasis slightly, and theme decisively.  Moffett, having begun with personal stories (of crisis, romance & tragedy) in book one, develops big themes to which she adds sf conceptualisation in book two, and brings the two into symbiosis in book three.  The series’ protagonist gets a passing reference on p263 of the first book but doesn’t actually appear until the second volume.  Nevertheless she becomes a memorable, intriguing character who informs the whole trilogy.

Readers at the time first encountered the Hefn and the events around them in a Nebula shortlisted novella called ‘The Hob’ (Asimov’s Magazine, May 1988).  In book form this became chapter 2 of TRW ‘”Ti Whinny Moor Thoo Cums At Last.”‘

On the North Yorkshire Moors a Hefn named Elphi awakes from hibernation and is seen by a walker, Jenny Shepherd, lost on the moors.  Torn between self-preservation and the urge to rescue the lost human Elphi kidnaps Jenny and takes her to the Hefn hideout.  Thus we learn that a few aliens were abandoned here by their ship 400 years ago as punishment.  The Yorkshire Hefn became the Hob of folklore, secretly helping at ‘good’ farms.  It’s a charming story in it’s own right, cleverly linking alien and folk tale. The details of Jenny on the moors are evocative, engaging the reader in the landscape.  It’s detail shared with a much earlier poem by Moffett “Whinny Moor Crossing” based on her own experience out on the moors.  ‘The Hob’ almost stands aside from the rest of TRW but sets the ground for much that follows. 

Although ‘The Hob’ gained a Nebula shortlisting, it was the next story that garnered most attention. The controversial novella ‘Tiny Tango’ also picked up Nebula and Hugo shortlisting. (Lois McMaster Bujold won both.)  As far as I can ascertain it may be the first work of science fiction to feature an HIV+ heterosexual protagonist  (Thomas M Disch and Samuel R Delany had written gay characters earlier.)  This is the earliest set story in the sequence, beginning in 1985.  Reading in book form we already know that Nancy Sandford is alive in 2023 but on first reading the detail of HIV and AIDS was new and disturbing.  Perhaps more so is Nancy’s reaction & coping strategy.  As a high flying academic she abruptly shifts to a tiny backwater college, avoids social contact, and focuses on her work as a botanist.  She also begins cross dressing and observing men, even fashioning a prosthetic for using urinals.   

‘Tiny Tango’ is not an easy story to absorb.  Nancy’s botanical work is, at points, linked to her illness, to purity and breeding, even to the aliens.  Early on her potato plants develop an aphid-borne virus, and as she destroys the infected to save the healthy she reflects on the AIDS riots of the late 90s.  The inspiration of the monastic Mendel directs her organic gardening.  She watches porn as an unattached woman and even references “certain water sports videos” (TRW p102.)  When circumstances force her to take a young male student assistant she lusts after him in secret.  All of this was shocking in 1989, but interestingly nested together. The cross dressing and cross fertilisation reflect each other.  The ironic hermaphroditism of Nancy Sandford joyfully watching cocks exhibited in public washrooms and the flowering cultivars with male and female flowers entwine.  

We learn more about the original Hefn and their banishment to Earth in ‘Final Tomte’ where the last survivor of a Swedish group is the subject of a search by the returning Hefn Pomphrey.  Up to now the Hefn have appeared largely benevolent but this story changes that.  There are two alien species, the Hefn who we see, and their masters the mysterious Gafr who are altogether more forceful.

As a young man Gunnar Lundqvïst helped the tomte (think the Swedish folkloric variant of a hob) on his family farm.  60 years later, the heavy drinking Gunnar lets slip this story and the Hefn arrive to seek their kin.  Pomphrey reveals a dark, almost fascistic, side to the Hefn as he insists that Gunnar’s feelings are inconsequential in their search. They will use mind control and memory probe techniques against his will. So Gunnar goes on the run.  

The poignant story of a dying alien the last of his group becomes darker and ultimately foreshadows parts of the later books.  

“It’s necessary” replied Pomphrey, “surely what’s necessary is neither right nor wrong.”

And from the other side there are mutterings of resistance and anti-Hefn sentiment.

“What will these Hefn have made us into before they’re through?”

These three intriguing stories together created the circumstances for Moffett’s ultimate story though looking back one wonders how clear this was for her at the time.  A fourth story ‘Remembrance of Things Future’ published in 1989 becomes the first chapter of TRW.  This story sets up events that prove formative for important characters later, but in isolation it works less well.  

The episodic nature of TRW begins to settle with the return to characters from ‘Remembrance of Things Future’ with the blunt & unmitigated tragic events of  ‘The Ragged Rock’.  A massive nuclear power station meltdown at Peach Bottom, Virginia & the personal consequences introduce both Liam O’Hara who will be important in TimeStream but also set up themes of trauma that Moffett will return to.  

If The Ragged World is a mish mash of individual stories setting up what appears to be Moffett’s primary concerns then Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream does something less expected.  The Hefn have put an end to human fertility until we learn to respect the earth and stop destroying it.  (As an aside, this almost inverts her debut novel Pennterra where the conflict is between human settlers and the native environment of a colony planet.)

TimeStream largely rejects the alien deus ex machina solution in favour of a focus on what a few humans are already doing.  

Liam O’Hara comes to the foreground as a mathematical genius credited with discovering vital equations that may identify hot spot ‘holy places’ where man & nature have coexisted in a fundamental way.  Wisely Moffett doesn’t try to explain this in a technical way.  References to ley lines and Holy Ground imply rather than detail a philosophy the Hefn are steering.  

Liam’s friend at the Hefn institution the Bureau of Temporal Physics (BTP) is the young Pam Pruitt alluded to in passing at the end of TRW.  Although seemingly beginning with Liam the lead in TimeStream gradually shifts to Pam.  

At the BTP these young mathematicians work with Hefn to look at key points in the past where things might have changed.  To adopt a term from a different strand of SF, alternate history, they use time transceivers to examine jonbar points and identify ‘fixes’.

We’ve already had an implication that Liam & Pam have an unconventional relationship, when Moffett includes an odd interpolation:

Odd, in part, because it appears out of place and unexplained amidst correspondence between Pam and Liam that is otherwise contextualising the world of 2026 post-Hefn baby ban.  Odd too in the setting up of an overtly asexual character in her 20s.  This is something SF didnt do.  But looking back across Moffett’s other work it fits.  I can’t think of another writer who so routinely & sympathetically incorporated characters with less conventionally depicted sexuality.  Right from her first published story, ‘Surviving’ with its explicit, obsessive relationship she has looked from different angles.  

It is still odd though to see it expressed this way as early as page 6 of TimeStream before we know Pam Pruitt as a person.  In the adjacent letter to Liam though, Pam talks of conversation with her mother.  “I’m going to talk to her about Dad” she says ominously.  

Pam, in fact, has had some kind of breakdown. Her ability to “set coordinates” in her work has caused her to leave the BTP. Her mathematical “intuition” has gone.  So she takes a different approach, writing about her personal traumas, and global events.  Partially framed as a letter to Liam which she admits to oblique ulterior motives over, this sees Pam aged 26 looking back over her teens and early adult years.  Locus magazine’s description quoted on the paperback cover comes from this:

“A cross between Huckleberry Finn and, perhaps, Catcher In The Rye.”  

Certainly there’s a double handed coming of age story here. Pam and Liam, but we already know the latter’s trauma: his beloved best friend died due to the Peach Bottom meltdown; and we saw his tortured attempt to take his own life by hiking into the contaminated zone. 

Judith Moffett with poet James Merrill in 1974

Now we get Pam’s story, but where Liam’s history is told in relatively linear fashion  (a few prescient notes aside) Pam’s is very much an exercise in self-analysis.  Her telling is deliberately disjointed as she views her younger self with questioning hindsight.

Certainly I had a lot of faith that the Hefn would do what the people had refused to — that they would fix things — that when they got through doing whatever they were doing here, the world be a better place.

Now, I think I probably trusted them mostly because they weren’t people.

We learn that Pam is hiding something from herself, but not what.  There are clues but as large parts of the novel are from her viewpoint the truth is ambiguous.  

Eventually Pam ends up at Hurt Hollow, a homestead formerly maintained by Hannah and Orrin Hubbell.  (Note: I typed owned then replaced it with maintained as representing the philosophy of the Hubbell relationship with the land.)  She effectively hides out there, a sort of custodian homesteader.  There are echoes of Walden of course but the real life inspiration for Hurt Hollow seems faithfully transcribed to fiction by Moffett/Pam. 

At this point as Moffett delves deeper into environmental concerns one might think of Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre too.  A story like ‘Muir on Shasta’ offers a deep engagement with the land.  There’s a second similarity to Robinson in Moffett’s comfort writing long discussions arguing through her themes.  

Moffett also uses Pam’s self-conscious memoir to discuss her own novel.  Questions we may have from TRW are deflected by Pam musing on why she didn’t “wonder more about what [the Hefn] were, in fact, doing.”  

Gradually we do learn, we see the Hefn use mind wipe abilities on opposition, the hypnotic Broadcast creates a near global baby ban, and wasteful technology is restricted.  Research using Liam’s equations identifies hot spots but there’s an underlying insistence that no ground is holier than others.  Institutes of missionaries are created, working locally on environmental issues and pushing the Hefn agenda but renamed  Gaians.

There is resistance, as in the bar mutterings in ‘Final Tomte’ through to an attempt to kill the Hefn Humphrey and branding the young Gaian volunteers traitors.  

But this is primarily plot, mostly Moffett is demonstrating the homestead life, modeling the Gaian plan before it ever was a plan.  And she is exploring the response to deep trauma in Pam.  

So, belatedly, we get to The Bird Shaman published a decade later, in part due to personal changes in Moffett’s life and part trends in publishing. 

By now the ban is biting. The Gaian missions are growing but so is the anger. Liam’s sister Brett (married to Nancy Sandford’s assistant Eric in one of the little ties by which Moffett brings strands together) is desperate for a child.  

But in Utah a rare child, Lexi, is the star of a didactic soap drama about Mormon pioneers. Until she runs away and finds her way to the Salt Lake City Gaian mission and Pam Pruitt.  

The Mormon community has, in this novel, an increased antipathy to the Hefn.  As Pam recognises, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints childbearing is not just a biological instinct but a deep theological imperative.  And in Utah they are the law.

So by sheltering Lexi, Pam has challenged senior Mormon leaders.  But Lexi has been abused regularly by her grandfather, an important figure in the church.   Pam cannot avoid involvement, despite the risk to her own psyche.  Her past gradually becomes clearer (and we see too how trauma has impinged on Liam’s relationships as his boyfriend is recognised as his Jeff proxy.)

Bird is a longer, darker novel than its predecessors  (AIDS and meltdown in TRW notwithstanding)  Lexi’s story and Pam’s are examined in depth.  The book opens with the funeral of a character from the earlier books.  This allows a brief reiteration of Moffett’s themes before opposition to the Hefn is thrust to the foreground when Humphrey is challenged.  The undercurrent of violence is therefore present from the start in a way it isn’t in TRW or TimeStream.  

But Pam’s place in Utah begins to have a new meaning.  The lost mathematical intuition of TimeStream Pam is replaced gradually with a shamanic “strong dreaming” that engages the now and the past to create a future.  Study of prehistoric cave paintings gives insight into the Hefn on Earth and human interaction with their lands.  The BTP in TimeStream looked specifically at points where society transitioned, hunter-gatherer to agrarian, agrarian to prevent industrial etc, for balance points.  Pam’s new abilities shift this again but it requires her healing to allow earth’s healing and perhaps, vice versa.  

To be honest, I’m not sure I totally understand the end of Bird or if, in a literal sense, that isn’t deliberate.  It becomes increasingly spiritual as meaning becomes symbol.  

Religion has been a recurrent element for Judith Moffett which I’ve barely touched on. Pennterra is a rare example of Quakers in science fiction, for example. In TRW there are references to different denominations defining backgrounds for good and bad, before Baptist preaching of anti Hefn sentiment almost turns tragic in TimeStream. (We might compare language used here to some of the racist rhetoric of certain leaders past and present.) Chapter titles in TimeStream mostly quote & reference biblical verse.  Including chapter 15 ‘Holy Ground – Exodus 3:5’ where the series takes its name in retrospect.

And Bird looks acutely and with some knowledge it seems, at the structures of the LDS church.  Alongside this are chapters of deep human devotion to the Hefn and a new interpretation of the HefnGafr relationship. 

 Pam certainly isn’t unaware of her feelings for Humphrey in this regard. Liam who has significant reason to owe Humphrey, and despite his haunted obsession with Jeff’s memory, questions this too.  

It was the rising generation that collectively had created the transforming myth Pam had failed to imagine for their parents.  Conjured by intentionality out of the quantum universe, the HefnGafr appeared on Earth to save themselves by saving us...The young humans had invented the version they required, and then chosen to believe it.

Ultimately that perhaps is Moffett’s message.  A young Gaian says at the end “I don’t suppose it was psychologically possible to think beyond that, about there being any kind of bright side to failing.”  Until we learn to see beyond the now, as Pam does by strong dreaming, the paradigm can‘t change. Whether that is personal like Pam’s or Liam’s trauma (and suddenly we see how Nancy Sandford changed her paradigm 50 years earlier) or on the full scale human level, Moffett lays down a challenge.  

It is the way that blunt challenge for humanity to change or die is wrapped in memorable and unique characters that I initially look at. The deep, thoughtful examinations of alternative sexuality on a personal level, and the partial  deconstruction of religion to uncover aspects of faith and spirituality flesh this out.  Moffett offers up ambiguity and certainty in equal measure making The Holy Ground Trilogy a remarkable and important work of modern SF.
** Judith Moffett’s work can mostly be found in e-book form at Gollancz SF Gateway

A collection of otherwise uncollected stories is due soon **  

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The Cutting Season – Attica Locke 

Attica Locke’s second novel opens with the discovery of a murder and concludes with the solving of that crime.  The identification of the killer is however secondary here to the setting, which in itself makes the murder a consequence.

Belle Vie is a historic Louisiana plantation house turned museum & high end event venue. Caren Gray is both manager and descendant of the estate’s former slaves.  Early one morning the body of a migrant woman from the neighbouring big corporate cane fields is found on the estate.  For Caren that brings layers of trouble.

But as I said, The Cutting Season is barely about whodunit.  There are the usual clues, false leads, obtuse cops, rogue reporters etc but on this Locke hangs a deep picture of recent and historic American south.  It is, inevitably, a picture of racism.

There are some brutal details in apparent throwaway asides here:

She’d voted for him on last year’s election, even though she’d never seen the man in person.  He’d actually run uncontested, but it was 2008, and she’d felt weird about leaving one of the spaces blank. She didn’t want to lose her say on a technicality.  She’d gone over that ballot three or four times, standing alone in the booth, tracing a finger under the first line, the word President(p35)

Throughout The Cutting Season Attica Locke reminds us of how the past continues to inform the present.  On a personal level Caren clashes with Belle Vie ‘s cook, a job here mother once held.  Her childhood friend on the estate was the white owner’s son and the Clancy family kindness to the Grays is overt.  Kindness as the whitefolk see it.  Or kindness as the rich folk view it, for the racial aspect here is almost indistinguishable from a class aspect.

There are plots within plots here, the young actor in Belle Vie’s historical playlets who wants a true black history to be shown (‘a story to put to rest that “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” mess for good’); or the brutal overseer of the migrant workforce on the neighbouring farm, and the false contrast of historic Belle Vie and modern corporate Groveland Farms.  And there’s a crucial historical coincidence.  Inés Avalo probably wasn’t the first murder at Belle Vie.  Sometime in the 1870s during the Reconstruction a former slaves named Jason disappeared.  His great great granddaughter is Caren Gray.  The story young Donovan wants to tell at Belle Vie is Jason’s story & that of the black sherif who investigated it.  

Without spoilers, the discoveries all this reveal are both predictable and surprising.  The quotidian details and pointed asides are perhaps the same. I’m not a black American so sensations such as Caren’s election anxiety are new to me, but maybe familiar to others?  

The pull of the place on it’s residents is important.  Locke uses it to show why many former slaves stayed after emancipation, how those who worked the land, then the house, remained tied to “the true pull of family, and the impossibility of escaping our bonds, or ever truly forgetting where we came from”

Or as Caren did, returned. The reporter Owens calls her on this:

“You one of those who never went back?”

He was speaking of New Orleans, of course.

Katrina too, resonates in this world.  Raymond Clancy justifies his political ambition through it as much as his black employees fear the local consequence: the sale of their livelihood.  

Ultimately Attica Locke uses two murders to reflect on two societies that have too much that is bad in common.   The slaves and ex-slaves of Belle Vie or the migrant undocumented workforce of Groveland all suffer under their field and house bosses.  The staff of contemporary Belle Vie are still under the whim of the owners the Clancy family.

As a review in The Guardian of Locke’s third novel the political crime novel Pleasantville notes, the near history of Locke’s settings gives us pause. We see here, tangentially, the thrill of the Obama presidency for Caren Gray but we are reminded at the same time of the disappointments to come. We see in Jason the joy of emancipation, the desire to work & build a home, but we know what comes next.  This may be the universal dichotomy of historical fiction, but the powerful extremes Locke chooses emphasise the echoes of then in now.

The Cutting Season is a simple thriller with rich political nuance.  It shines light where many are reluctant and doesn’t often flinch.  Attica Locke is an author who makes me think as much as she entertains me.  

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Ever After – Lisa Goldstein 

Fairytales have meanings.  If you believe Betelheim, for instance, they are heavily laden metaphors for puberty & sexual awakening.  If you look elsewhere you’ll find them described as consolatory fables by Calvino; offering hope of release from poverty and subjection.

From the late-60s at least, women writers have been revisiting fairytales and revisioning them.  Anne Sexton in poetry, Josephine Saxton in SF and then most famously Angela Carter put new (or revisioned old spins on familiar stories.)  Carter eroticised her versions, but others looked at other meanings.

Lisa Goldstein in ‘Ever After’ doesn’t take a specific tale and rewrite it. Rather she looks at the next step, the famous ‘happy ever after’.  Her story begins at the wedding.  The princess’ dress is too tight.  She didn’t have money for a dress, it was chosen for her, even to being the wrong colour to match her eyes.  She knows nobody. The ladies in waiting struggle with her accent.  The Prince puts her to lessons: etiquette, manners and elocution to correct her “pretty little accent.” She joins the court ladies for needlework, which she is good at from sewing for her stepsisters, and gossip, which she knows nothing of. Everything happens to her.

Gradually she becomes isolated & lonely, until she receives a secret message from revolutionaries via a young harpist, Alison.  Persuading Alison to give her harp lessons she makes a friend and learns new perspectives on the court and the king.  Increasingly she is estranged from her prince, whilst his former love watches with the ladies of the court.

Goldstein throughout her work uses the telling of stories within stories to emphasise meaning and ‘Ever After’ is no exception.  From the start, throughout her wedding day the princess is told her place:

“You’re very fortunate,” people told her, over and over again.  “Very fortunate.” The princess had smiled and nodded, thinking, But what about him? Don’t they know how fortunate he is to have me?

On her first night with the Prince she notes:

Did he really think she knew nothing about what went on between a man and a woman? There had been nights, at home, when her stepsisters would talk of nothing else.

And in conversation with Alison she realises she is the subject of tales too.

“I know, my lady,” Alison said.

The princess stopped. Of course Alison knew. No doubt the whole country knew. No doubt Alison had even sung songs about the orphan who had married a prince.

Thus Goldstein makes explicit the storying involved.  That the fairytale is not real but has real meaning.

As things worsen for the princess she turns to Alison who reveals that her boyfriend the revolutionary is planning something.  Will Alison join him?

“…I think he doesn’t love the people so much as he loves himself. That if he does win a war he’ll set himself up as King and start all over again. And I’ve had all the dealings I want with kings.”

So Alison and the princess discuss disappointment, the absence of happy ever after.  “You just keep going, that’s all. You do the best you can.” Alison says.

Meanwhile the ladies are gossiping, mocking ‘Cinder Girl’ (for this is after Cinderella in case we weren’t sure.)  Their talk of Lady Flora, the prince’s ex-, is abruptly curtailed when the princess enters.  Stories matter.

Goldstein has taken what AS Byatt calls the narrative grammar of fairytale and their matter of fact telling but deconstructed it.  When the princess finally snaps and decides to escape it is not to join the revolution, what might seem a secondary instauration, but to recognise that the wrongness of the fantasy is in the premise.  The justice of the ending is external to the story as told.  The princess meets her godmother a final time, thanks her but says of happily ever after:

“I don’t want it,” the princess said. “Give it to someone else.  Give it to Flora, she could probably use it.”

Marina Warner writes that “Fairytales evoke every kind of violence, injustice, and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.” (Once Upon a Time, introduction, 2014)

Lisa Goldstein has recognised that but challenges the Grimm-through-Disney assumption of the ending.  From these familial tales to Tolkien’s Return of the King fantasy has rewarded its protagonists with instauration of a higher place.  Goldstein steps outside, the princess regains happiness by rejecting the broken promise of happy ever after.  In doing so Goldstein tells us that the stories we have always been told might not be for our best interests.  And particularly for women, whether Alison or the Princess, agency is not given in these stories but in Goldstein’s version they sieze it joyously.

Note:

‘Ever After’  was first published in the December 1984 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine but reprinted in Goldstein’s 1994 collection Travellers in Magic (Tor Books) As Goldstein notes in a brief afterword there are echoes of Charles & Diana here.

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New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson 

Kim Stanley Robinson’s fascinating and provocative 18th novel New York 2140 is set several decades after two major climate events have raised sea levels hugely.  Coastal cities are therefore largely underwater. New York is no exception. Robinson’s characters live co-operatively mostly in one building, the former Met Life skyscraper, but exist in a variety of colliding worlds outside.

In the comments on Adam Roberts’ Guardian review we find  the following exchange: 

Solarphysicist: Oh. What a stunningly original idea for a story. Yawn.

Robmatic: I’m not aware of any other novels that are set in a future flooded New York.

Here’s the thing though, despite Robinson’s just reputation as a (the?) leading climate change novelist, New York 2140 isn’t about climate change really. Or at least it’s about a lot more too.

Primarily it’s about economics. It’s a polemic about how and more pertinently why our market based economic systems fail and fail again. (Clue: it’s a feature not a bug.)  In this respect a novel set 123 years from now takes on the mantle of a historical novel.  

Each broad chapter in this 600+ page novel is, like the Met skyscraper, split into units focused on 8 character sets.  Mutt and Jeff, coders whose attempted hack on the financial systems precipitates the personal events of the novel; Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, policewoman who looks into Mutt and Jeff’s disappearance; Charlotte, the lawyer & head of the Met residents; Vlade, building supervisor passionate about his work and nursing a dark past; Franklin, unscrupulous market trader gambling on his algorithms being ahead of the game, and it is a game; Amelia Black, globetrotting cloud sensation with a dirigible from which she films her beloved wildlife; and uneducated 12 year old orphan squatters with impulsive grand ideas Stefan and Roberto.  Each has their own interesting things to say about their world. And each we begin to care about as they grow in the novel. This compartmentalised structure maintains the flow of the novel and neatly disguises something. 

NY2140 is largely a novel with several plots of the conspiracy kind, but almost lacks an overt plot of the story kind.  It is episodic with moments of drama (no spoilers but for those who have read it, Amelia’s polar bears is probably the highest drama.)  Long time readers of Robinson will be aware that this is what he does frequently. He writes process rather than story in a way that makes the process appear to be the result.  NY2140 is a distillation of an approach that has recurred in his novels since Pacific Edge at least.  So where much SF is about something going wrong, for Robinson the crisis is a given.  Small, personal details go wrong, the overarching crisis is already present. The trick is the tying of the personal to the global somehow.

Robinson does this using a character not yet mentioned. Labelled variously ‘a citizen’; ‘that citizen’; ‘the citizen’; these sections explain in clear detail what goes on in market trading, what happens to the virtual money circulating. These sections are a form of Greek Chorus telling us what is happening alongside the sections showing us what happens.  Again this is not new in Robinson’s novels, Michel plays this role in the Mars series at times, the prisoner in Pacific Edge writing his novel, perhaps the whole future sections of Galileo’s Dream add to this.  What this does is allow Robinson to make a meta fictional statement.  Here, he says, you were told this would happen, and it did.  It allows a novel set 123 years from now to be a form of historical novel because these are the scenes where the past is explained. New York’s past, capitalism’s past, the ecological past. The citizen, or perhaps citizens, form meaning out of the chaos.  Amidst the many quotes used between chapters here one by Robinson’s former mentor Frederic Jameson is notable. In part it reads:

The great collective project has a meaning and it is that of utopia.  But the problem of utopia, of collective meaning, is to find an individual meaning. 

I’m about to state what seems glaringly obvious to me. Almost the entirety of Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre is summed up in that statement. His great collective project has been to offer individuals meaning within utopia.  

In a 1994 interview he told me that in a utopia people can still die tragically, can still fall in love with the wrong person.  In New York 2140 he avoids that, or engineers ways around it. There is redemption.   This may be both his strength and his weakness.  We are pulled in to empathise with the cocky, arrogant Franklin, to dream with the boys event as we fear for them, to laugh at and with Amelia as she is both ditzy yet gets things done.  But, we need to ask, where is the edge? This New York has its villains seeking to protect their high-level con but no streetcrime. The universal but not the individual when it comes to the dark side.  It has ties to history, notably in the boys’ confidante Mr Hexter, this novel’s Tom Barnard perhaps, but is oddly detached geographically.  Despite Amelia’s peregrinations we rarely feel this New York is a part of a larger world.  Indeed Amelia’s role is most often to show off the one true science fictional element here, the balloon based cloud cities and cloud ecologies of which perhaps more could be explored elsewhere.

Amelia is involved in a couple of the more physically dramatic scenes here, as are Stefan and Roberto, but these are rapidly dealt with and moved on from.  There are typical Robinson set pieces, diving a sunken city, walking around describing the scenery, conversations about history, that serve to tie the land to the people. This has always appeared a key concern of his, but it doesn’t offer a broad dramatic impetus.  This is not to say there’s no drama, but it is mostly subtle such as Charlotte’s interactions with her ex partner, or almost comic relief in the boys’ scrapes and near misses.  The human things that continue to happen even in utopian scenarios.

Which brings me back to the historical novel.  One of the ironies of the historical novel is that, by and large, the reader knows what is going to happen. There are fixed points. The tension is either in the gap between the reader’s awareness and the characters; or in the journey to that fixed point.  The process.  Robinson’s favourite aspect. Both Science Fiction and the Historical novel have been described as being about the era they are written rather than the time they are set.  In NY2140 Robinson spends a lot of time talking about the past, about what led to the situation now.  Not the now of 2140 but the now of 2017.  The climate change events are glossed over as consequences of the economics of now.  The references to 2008, to Bernanke and Piketty, are our fixed points of history.  The novel is as much about what caused 2008 as about the climate or the future.  The structure is a repeating “I told you so.” to the world, the plot is a reassuring “we can rebuild it.”  

Even in choosing the Met Life building he alludes to history. Briefly the world’s tallest building, it replicates the Campanile in a sunken city we already know. Venice.  History ties this book together.

New York 2140 therefore is a science fictional attempt to take a historical perspective on very recent events.  It is Robinson’s boldest attempt to achieve that fusion of individual and collective meaning that Jameson talks of.  It is full of detail that do nothing to advance the story but do enhance the theme.  It is a novel that couldn’t be written by any other novelist.  Every chapter is soaked in familiar Robinson touchstones. This is a comfort, strength and weakness. The diving (way back to “Venice Drowned” or Green Mars); the wise old figure from the Three Californias, Frederic Jameson of course, and en passant a sly nod to Samuel R Delany alongside an overt reference to Octavia Butler. 

If the solutions seem almost too easy in the end, if our heroes find meaning as individuals and as collectives, well Robinson is a utopian, his optimism in the process, the journey, is infectious at times.  He conveys that very human need to be a part of something, but without losing individuality.  New York 2140 stands alone in his oeuvre yet is ineluctably central to it.  With one slight change of tack maybe. In the past Robinson tried to argue against himself, to debate within the pages of his novels.  That is reduced here, NY2140 is at its core a lecture, or perhaps a seminar, on economics. It is a book to pay heed to.  “I told you so” leading into a call to arms.

And it isn’t, in any meaningful sense, a climate change novel.  

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Winterreise — Andrew Foster-Williams, Christopher Gould and Mariele Neudecker — The Great Hall, Lancaster University

(Originally posted on The Lunecy Review, 20 November 2009.)

The high water mark of the second flowering of German Romanticism is the work of Franz Schubert, and in particular the song cycle Winterreise. Schubert’s setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller tells the tragic story of a young man who travels to the human of a woman he loves, only to be rejected, and of his desolate ‘winter journey’ afterwards.

The German born but British based artist Mariele Neudecker has explored many of the themes of German Romanticism over her career, from early works reproducing the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich in three dimensions to her more recent film setting of Mahler’s kindertotenlieder. Her films comprising her Winterreise are both literal and metaphorical representations of Schubert and Muller and serve as a backdrop and complement to the performance of bass baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould.
As one of the audience told me afterwards, the combination of recital and film can be a mistake, one distracting from the other, but Winterreise gets it absolutely right. Foster-Williams is a great singer and he performs remarkably across a difficult, arduous work. 85 minutes with a furrowed brow almost, as he portrays the anguish and angst of Muller’s protagonist (himself an echo of Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther a generation earlier.) It should be noted that recordings of Schubert generally feature a tenor but the deeper voice has equal merits for me. Gould is a sensitive pianist, careful and responsive, coming to the fore in the Sturm und Drang mid sections, fading almost into the mist at other points. His rapport with Foster-Williams and supporting appreciation of both singer and visuals is near perfect to my ear.
As for the visuals themselves? Neudecker has consistently adopted a long view, and that is ever-present here. The films repeatedly look away from the observer (something seen in the paintings of Friedrich) placing us in the protagonist’s mind throughout. Looped film of a boat wake cutting through icy seas draw the eye both towards the departure point and, tellingly, under the ice. Snow covered streets change with the light yet remain essentially the same. Often elements of apparent interest are distant, mist-shrouded and ghostly. Each film takes an epigraph paraphrasing Muller, koan like, suggestive.
There has been much debate over the years about the ending of Winterreise. Muller depicts the appearance of a barefoot elderly hurdy-gurdy man, a scene open to multiple interpretations, and Neudecker maintains this ambiguity. I have my ideas; it is a tragic piece exploring dark emotions and the elemental sublime at the heart of Romanticism.
Winterreise was first made in 2004 and has been performed like this about 25 times since. Whether it is the art, the music or Romanticism that draws you along, the end result is a superb work worth revisiting. LICA are to be commended for bringing such world-class performers to Lancaster.

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The Museum of Shadows and Reflections – Claire Dean

(Unsettling Wonder, 2017)

Fantasy almost always admits to being Fantasy, always contains that moment of recognition of being story.  Fairytales are arguably more explicit on this point than other fantasies, being dependent on familiarity for affect.  

Claire Dean’s stories collected here have something of fairytale and fantasy about them, yet most also eschew that knowing declaration of story.  Here be, not dragons, but bird women, miniature cities and transformations.  Usually however, these fabulations don’t acknowledge anything magical.  In her best stories Dean makes the quotidian marvellous.  

Take opener ‘Raven’ where only the epigraph from Grimm even tentatively recognises anything abnormal about a baby transformed into a bird.  The narrator is more concerned with looking after what is still her child, than with how or why.

“I’d always said there was no way I was breastfeeding her once she got teeth. I hadn’t expected a beak.”

Birds in human form, or women in avian form, occur in Feather Girls too.  This matter of fact telling of a man meeting his feather girl date in a pub exemplifies one of Dean’s traits.  That defining characteristic of fairytale that Marina Warner identifies, the happy ending, has arguably already happened.  That recognition occurs outwith the text.  

“‘You have to catch their coats whilst they’re young.’ That’s was the saying he’d been brought up with”

But he has been meeting her for years, and he hasn’t trapped her. We get the feeling she would allow it but they don’t. There’s acceptance but an understated longing too.  

In subsequent stories Dean returns repeatedly to the idea of a miniature city or town being nested within our world.  Characters flow between here and what I want to call not-here rather than there.  ‘There’ is a specific place even when mysterious and unknown.  Claire Dean evokes a non-place, abstract and displaced from the world.  It is interstitial to such stories as “Growing Cities” and “Glass, Bricks, Dust” and particularly the poignant farewell to an old woman: ‘Stone Sea’ which reflects Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant.  That French surrealist anti-novel provides the quote prefacing these stories:

“New myths spring up beneath each step we take.”

If Claire Dean is creating new myths she sits in a long tradition of feminist writers retelling fairytales back through Le Guin, Saxton, Carter, McKinley, Goldstein, Winterson or Attwood.  Her way isn’t the eroticism or the assertive role changes of some of these writers or the overt retelling of the too familiar tale.  Like much of their work however these stories sit outside their putative genre.

Only ‘The Silent Kingdom’ and ‘The Woman Who Wore Frost Slippers’ fully adopt a fairytale voice with more generic characters identified as the princess, the old woman etc.  The former story lays bare its nature from the first line: 

“Once there was and there was not a Kingdom wrapped in silence.”  That sounds like a classic fairytale opening but then there’s that twist. Was and was not.  Fantasy and fairytale are generally self-contained. They work to internal rules that may not be our world.  Here Dean may have broken that, by telling us not to believe all we see.  The genre linkage are fractured and, I think, hesitant.  

Returning to the other stories here, Dean writes a clear, mundane detailed real world.  The descriptions are spare but precise.  As far as I can tell only two stories specify a geographical setting: the disturbing ‘Moth Light’ with its implied Manchester and feminist depiction of lost identity in a relationship; and the Blackpool seafront of the title story which liberates that lost identity.  Somehow many of the rest convey that universality of the run-down English resort without names. She utilises familiarity in the setting to ground the fantastic rather than contrast it.  This is clearly our world and clearly not our world.  “Once there was and there was not”   It is a world where things happen differently but not unexpectedly.  It is there and not-there. 

Claire Dean photograph by Kev McVeigh 

A baby is a wondrous thing, she is no more or less wondrous or loveable or anxiety-provoking for being a Raven at times. A date with a loved one is special regardless of her feathers.  A neglected memory is no more poignant for being a preserved living shadow in a museum.  

The fantastic element enhances the mimetic rather than the more usual reverse.  It is here that Claire Dean’s stories work best for me.  There are transformations in some stories but overall it is a change of viewpoint about something largely outwith the story.  Several stories imply a protagonist/narrator becoming what she initially was viewing and so looking out where she looked in. ‘Marionettes’ originally published as a Nightjar Press chapbook, is a particularly disturbing example. 

 There are anxieties and loss throughout the collection but there’s an acceptance of this too.  A sense of control and peace ultimately pervades the collection.  The stories are all short, (14 across 116 illustrated pages.) so whilst Wrongness isn’t always apparent even in the several stories of death, such as the drowned village of Chorden-under-water, there is Recognition which may not look like a happy ending Disney-style, but is often a Healing implicit beyond The End.  

Claire Dean’s stories are fairytales and fantasy and are not fairytales or fantasy. They balance on the cusp, reflecting or casting shadows.  Reflections are familiar but not quite right. So too are the northern coastal towns and people living in these stories. The stories are charming and poignant but disturbing too. They are short, rich in dark flavours, and memorable.  The Museum of Shadows and Reflections is a remarkable collection.  You cannot seek it out to buy it now, like the mysterious travel agency to another world, when you come back the next day, it is gone.*

Illustration by Laura Rae for ‘Feather Girls’

*The book was funded on advance orders and the publisher only printed enough for those who ordered.  So only 110 copies were made. Some of Claire’s work can be read here

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Albums of the year 2016 pt 2

Part 1 of the countdown of 2016 albums I liked also noted a few individual tracks and live albums.  Before I run down the top 15 there’s a couple of notable mentions that didn’t quite qualify by my arbitrary parameters.

Avital Raz reissued her settings of James Joyce to her indian inspired music now that the copyright issues expired.  In my mind it’s not a 2016 album but it is very much worth your attention . 

As always there are a few things I missed earlier in the year that I’m belatedly catching up on but don’t know well enough to rank here. Anohni’s new work seems richer than before and more to my liking but I’ve only properly heard a couple of tracks. The same applies to Iggy Pop, whilst the singles by Pixies sound good but not as immediate as they once did. Oliver Coates, Gaye Su Akyol, Modern Studies, NZCA Lines all intrigue me enough to investigate further.  And I very belatedly learned that Thalia Zedek  has a new band called E that sound fugazi-esque. Proof if it were needed that there’s plenty of amazing and diverse music around the world if we look for it.  

So that’s the near misses. Here’s the hits.

15. Minor Victories – s/t Shoegaze anyone?  Members of Slowdive, Mogwai and Editors combine to powerful effect.  Waves of guitars and Rachel Goswell ‘s vocals sometimes blend sometimes sit above each other but consistently excellent.

14. serpent with feet – blisters another EP but one with enough ideas for a dozen lesser albums.  Josiah Wise sings personal and fraught lyrics in a bold falsetto dripping with operatic and soulful melodrama whilst producer The Haxan Cloak experiments and explores soundscapes beneath.  The result is provocative and beautiful.

13. Meilyr Jones – 2013 a glib first impression has Jones pegged as a Welsh Jarvis but whilst there is a shared self-deprecating faux awkwardness to both of their personas Jones adds a rock classicism.  Personal lyrics incorporate allusions to other artists, blurring the boundaries of art and artist.  

12. David Bowie – Blackstar as with Leonard Cohen it’s impossible to separate this from Bowie’s death.  I wasn’t the biggest of Bowie fans but from first hearing the advance tracks it was obvious this was great.  Despite the carefully selected collaborators hindsight makes it an unusually personal Bowie album.

11. 65daysofstatic – No Man’s Sky a double album of songs (as much as 65dos do songs) and more abstract pieces from the video game No Man’s Sky .   Looped drums, prepared guitars, warmed electronics layer together. I’m beginning to realise that this is an album that gets more subtle with increased volume.  

10. Kojey Radical – 23 Winters This is art. Rap poetry visual art telling positive realistic revolutionary lessons. A 23 year old passing on his Ghanaian father’s wisdom with contemporary language, unusual rhythms and afro dub feel.  The sense of conversation here is what grabs me. 

9. Be – One It’s impossible to describe this Wolfgang Buttress without somehow diluting how remarkable it is. Guitars by Jason Pierce and others, Amiina’s strings & mellotron improvisation over the amplified live feed from beehives.  Droning but ever changing rhythms produce an intense meditative 4 part symphony unlike anything else you will hear.

8. Solange – A Seat At the Table her big sister maybe got more attention with Lemonade (which I liked) but this works better as an album.  In fact comparisons are a little unfair, the sisters are trying different things and both achieve their aims. Solange brings classic soul to 2016 and immediate relevant politics to the mix with great tunes and a great voice.

7. 75 Dollar Bill – Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock does what it says.  Complex percussion on minimal kit, African tuned Marquee Moon guitar freakouts lasting almost 15 minutes.  One to dance to or sit and soak up.  

6. The Comet Is Coming – Channel the Spirits serial collaborator Shabaka Hutchings brings lung busting tenor sax to a space funk party with drums that channel Tony Allen and motorik grooves in turn and wild electronics.  If Fela ever jammed with Kraftwerk and Can …maybe?

5. Beth Orton – Kidsticks more electronics (and guitars ) as Orton experiments more than her recent folkier work suggests.  There’s that gorgeous voice of course but she weaves it around tunes that echo her older work but take those echoes into strange new places. Dub and dance and pop and folk in one.  

4. Noura Mint Seymali – Arbina a Mauritanian vocal tour de force demanding better health care for women over psychedelic guitars opens this album.  Seymali updates griot traditional forms on the kora-like ardine whilst her husband’s guitar is modified to replicate Saharan sounds and swirling rock influences . 

3. Anna Meredith – Varmints OK any artist that gets people dancing to a tuba led piece deserves credit.  Meredith brings classical arrangements and dance energy together with bombast and subtleties.  The instrumental tracks continually throw in surprises like the electro hillbilly breakdown in ‘Vapours.’ The prog pop vocal pieces I was initially puzzled by grew on me.  

2. Ólafur Arnalds – Island Songs occasionally some piece of music has an impact such that you recall exactly where you heard it first.  I’d heard and enjoyed some of Arnalds pieces already but one Saturday morning lying in my tent at a festival listening to Mary Anne Hobbs’ show I heard ‘Öldurót’ and this album’s ranking was assured. A series of piano led and sometimes symphonic pieces inspired by islands around Iceland that are absolutely gorgeous and deeply evocative.

1. Shield Patterns – Mirror Breathing a well after midnight record if ever I heard one.  Pretty much straight in at number one from first listen. The most delicate, intricate yet ethereal, and crafted album of the year is paradoxically one of the most organic, free sounding too.  Warm electronics and deft fx seem to drift yet follow a rigorous pattern. That might be enough but then there’s Claire Brentnall’s deceptively guileless soaring vocals, like a less corporeal Kate Bush.  Richard Knox manages the neat trick too of filling these songs with sounds and leaving breathing space simultaneously.  Turn out the lights and lose yourself in this album.  

Here’s the official video for album closer ‘Glow’

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