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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The Best Albums of 2017

The Hermes Experiment at Union Chapel

Ok. Let’s start with a summary. 2017 has seen a lot of incredible new music across all genres.  I’ll say upfront picking a Top any number was a struggle. 10? That leaves out so many I want to list. 20? Maybe….

So i made a longlist of 60+ …but don’t worry they didn’t all make the cut. Some were just EPs or single tracks, despite their ear catching greatness these are relegated to despatches.  

Very early in the year a one off track called ‘Semitones’ by Lucinda Chua set a benchmark for the year.  It set me on a spree of listening to great, often instrumental, semi electronic pieces full of the ineffable.  

Of course i was already a massive fan of two very distinctive sax players who put out EPs this year Shabaka Hutchings space funk jazz as part of The Comet Is Coming and the gorgeous West Coast melodic explorations of Kamasi Washington.  

Shabaka Hutchings with The Comet Is Coming at Blue Dot

More folky but soaringly psychedelic too are Trembling Bells who pumped great life into ‘The Auld Triangle’ of all things.

Then just last week Mica Levi put out Delete Beach on Demdike Stare’s label.  A disturbing, dystopian SF piece with more ideas in a track than most artists’ careers.  Finally Maalie by Orcadian musician Erland Cooper is a soaring taste of hopefully a full album next year.

So those were EPs and single tracks, what of the full albums?

20. Ifriqiyya Electrique — Rûwâhîne One of several albums in the last couple of years that I can justly call unique.  North African sufi chants & industrial electronics & loops combine hypnotically and spaciously.

19 Clark — Death Peak Who knew I liked electronic music so much? But Clark, on this record at least, manages both warmth and frigidity that works for me.

18 Princess Nokia — 1992 Deluxe ask me again in a year, I suspect this will rank higher. Multi community radical queer feminist hip hop for the real world.  And it’s fun.

17 Pill Fangs — PF1 Sometimes bands don’t do things that are dramatically new but they do the old stuff better.  Cueing off Velvets & Voidoids with a garage passion & a surreal wit makes for a great ride. The cover of Tower of Song ain’t half bad either.

16. Jane Weaver — Modern  Near perfect modern electronic psych pop. As bright and bold as anything on here.

Jane Weaver at Blue Dot 

15. Bedouine — Bedouine And near perfect Laurel Canyon country folk pop, with a disarming protest element from Azniv Korkeijan’s birthplace in Aleppo. I’ve seen fair comparison to Bobby Gentry & Leonard Cohen too.

14. Tamikrest — Kidal probably my favourite of the various so-called desert blues bands around, and perhaps the one whose sound has evolved more seamlessly into a global sound.  

13. Floating Points — Reflections Mojave A more band-oriented outing this time, Sam Shepherd’s FP recorded electronics & guitars in the desert to produce a spacious space rock that  is updated rather than nostalgic prog.

12. Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express — Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins Great title, great record. This time out Chuck’s been listening to that Bolan boogie, Ronson riffs etc but still distinctly himself. And a cracking rock protest song to finish in Alex Nieto.

Chuck Prophet at ULU

11. Thundercat — Drunk Took me a while to appreciate how good this is.  Not that I didn’t see the skill but the soul seeped through later.  

Before the top 10 a few near misses.  Albums i enjoy but perhaps don’t come back to as much as those on this list. Afghan Whigs, Songhoy Blues, Ibibio Sound Machine, Wilhelm Otto, Black Country Communion, TootArd, Andrea Belfi, Snowdrops, Ghostpoet, Mogwai all came soooo close to the top 20.

10. Avital Raz — The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent Avital’s twisted love stories are the musical equivalent of fairytales reinvented by Paula Rego. She sings in soaring swoops and near spoken word of explicit sex and broken angels.  

Avital Raz at The New Continental

9. Kendrick Lamar — Damn is this as good as TPAB? In places yes, but overall the jury is out.  Occasionally Kendrick’s voice isn’t to my taste but the words, flow & beats overcome all that.

8. Aiden Baker & Claire Brentnall –Delirious Things Brentnall is half of last year’s number 1 Shield Patterns but here she adds her delicate but rich Kate Bush vocals to prolific multi instrumentalist Aiden Baker’s ambient dark wave beautifully.

7. Ex Eye — Ex Eye Brutal but subtle.  Colin Stetson’s bass saxophone led Black Metal Jazz combo are as heavy as it gets whilst keeping melodic narrative explorations central.

6. Astrïd & Rachel Grimes  — Through the Sparkle In a year of instrumental virtuosity the return of the wonderful pianist Rachel Grimes with French avant gardist group Astrïd is a highlight.  Each track here highlights different members of the group but working together like jazz soloists.  Cyril Secq’s heavily tremolo’d guitar makes for an expansive cinematic feel.

5. Slowdive  — Slowdive whisper it but i always preferred Slowdive over the likes of Ride or even MBV. This return is a creative triumph in remaining true to the Slowdive of 25 years ago and stepping into the future too. Nice to note that you can hear exactly who they influenced along the way. The Karma Police will be happy.

4. Kojey Radical  — In God’s Body For one thing i love Kojey’s deep resonant growl that adds a gravitas that isn’t needed but deserved.  His poetic, theatrical style helps too. And increasingly he seems confident to share with his collaborators without ego.

3. Mary Epworth — Elytral Five years wait for this, a reputed change of direction for Mary. This second album was both immediate and a slow burn. Distinctively Mary, even as she treated and warped her powerful vocals, it only seemed different at first. On listening, getting past hints of Goldfrapp and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, it’s a step onwards rather than away.

And so we come to the toughest choice on the list.  The top two wrote themselves.

I’ve known for most of the year what was going to top the list. I’ve also known for almost as long that the other one was too.  Incredible instrumental virtuosity, musical narrative, an imaginative approach and a soulful intensity characterises both.

1= Colin Stetson–All This I Do For Glory 

1= Hannah Peel–Mary Casio Journey to Cassiopeia 

One man, a huge instrument, the sound of a full band. Visceral romantic sounds like an oxymoron but it seems right to me.   Stetson is outstanding even amongst a year of instrumental virtuosity from the likes of Andrea Belfi, Matthew Bourne and Martin Heyne.

Colin Stetson at Gorilla (photo courtesy MaryAnne Hobbs)

On the other hand a full 30 piece traditional northern style brass band and analogue synths make Hannah Peel’s epic space sounds glorious and poignant.  Hearing lead track ‘Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula’ I realised I was seeing Chesley Bonestell paintings in the music.

Hannah Peel at Blue Dot 

I had the thrill of seeing a lot of great music played live in 2017 including a number of artists on this list. Back in July I got to see both Hannah Peel and Colin Stetson live within a week.  Those great performances didn’t help me separate their albums either.

One last thing, in best Columbo style, one thing that should be said. Many of us discovered a lot of this new music (and so much more) through MaryAnne Hobbs shows on BBC 6music. There’s a remarkable community arising around this, via twitter, and then meeting, for real, at a gig.  A bunch of us went to see Colin Stetson in the series of shows curated by MaryAnne as part of Manchester International Festival. As we waited for Colin, MaryAnne did a DJ set.  Towards the end of it she dropped Hannah Peel’s aforementioned Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula and the crowd applauded the dj booth.  A special moment in a year of special moments.  

 My friends, thank you for sharing in the music.  

2018 you have been challenged to surpass this year.

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A Cumbrian Tale, some of which is true, told indirectly.

On a recent stormy night I stood beneath a tree in the Lancaster University Library and told a story.  Yes, there is a real tree living in the library.  And yes, we’d already heard about the library’s ghost, believed to be Elizabeth Nelson, murdered nearby 151 years ago.

These library events, organised by the indefatigable Yvonne Battle-Felton, attract a good, diverse crowd so I began my tale on an ironic note.

It might sound funny, but I’m not from here.  [Other readers were from Spain, Peru, Wales, USA and elsewhere.]

I grew up 20 miles from here across in the county of Cumbria.  Now I didn’t realise until recently, but Cumbria is different.  It’s unique amongst the northern and central  lands of England by being bordered on all sides.  Conversation with Sarah Hall at Hay a couple of years ago confirmed this view.  From Solway Firth down to the Kent Estuary that was my playground, the vast expanses of water that are the wild  Irish Sea and ghostly Morecambe Bay surround three sides. To the East a spine of high moorland mountains, Howgill and Pennine, seal the land.  Cumbria is a land apart.

From the ancient kingdom of Rheged on, Cumbria has been distinct and separate.  The Romans crossed via mountain tops rather than boggy valleys. Unlike elsewhere, their road forced to fit the land not the reverse.  The vikings came but left nothing but words, place-names.  Malcolm IV ‘the maiden’ king claimed rule, but Cumbria was autonomous not fealty. Its rugged lands too complex to subjugate.  So, neither Scotland nor really England in any meaningful way.  

And perhaps neither this rational world nor that mysterious other land quite explain the lore of the county.  Not the full-blown faerie of the Western neighbours Ireland and Mann, but nor the attempted rationalisation of the South.  It is no surprise that this sublime land became the first home of the Romantic.  In the curious domestic menage of the Wordsworths is a fearsome loyalty to land and living, that infected and tortured the outsider Coleridge too. His attempt to consider the duality of man and landscape reflected in his intimate relationships too. Domestic and Ideal did not blend as it did for William, Mary & Dorothy.  He fared better than the arch-Cockney critical essayist Hazlitt though.  Predating the predatory narrator of Liber Amoris, a younger Hazlitt fled, was chased from the Lakes unceremoniously and with tail between his legs.  (Where, allegedly, he’d have been advised to keep it.)

Not all of this was in my tale in the library, but I held them with mention of vampires.  As literature students and readers, and with at least one Gothic novelist in the crowd, they knew that Stoker didn’t create the English literary vampire.  Of course they knew it came from Polidori who took more than a touch of Byron to do so.

We in the north know better. We in Cumbria tell of Thalaba the Destroyer, Bob Southey’s epic gothic poem. That’s where you’ll find the earliest vampires in English.  It’s Southey, creator of Goldilocks and the Three Bears too, who Byron called Mouthy Southey which tells you how to pronounce his name.  150 odd years later the father of the man who became film director Duncan Jones, had similar debate about his stage surname.  Romantic and Gothic echoes abound but always with a unique Cumbrian taste.

There was another Cumbrian writing of vampires though.  Just a couple of years after Southey and a few miles north the Blind Bard of Wigton published a poem called The Vampire.  John Stagg, it must be said, is deservedly neglected in comparison to his contemporaries. His work more interesting than good.  Lines about ‘his gore-besmirched jaw’ are graphic Gothic but in the ‘advert’ preceding the poem Stagg shows his best and worst.  Vampires, he asserts, ‘phlebotomise’ their victims but from that scientific description he moved quickly to them drawing blood by ‘suckosity’.  

So driving down the M6, I was thinking: what true ghost story might I tell.  I’d previously recounted experiences in the 17th century former vicarage turned hotel where I used to work.  A wild gust of wind buffeted the car and i thought of Peg Sleddal’s ghostly carriage and six careering down to Crackenthorpe Hall.

Who? You may ask. Well in the winter of 1643 Elizabeth ‘Peg’ Sleddal married one Lancelot Machell of Crackenthorpe Hall.  Lancelot had connection to the Clifford’s  (Lady Anne et al) of nearby Brougham Castle and on his demise Peg expected a nice estate.  She was angered to learn in his will, that she got only a third, and it is said that on certain September nights the howling Helm wind is her haunted carriage.

Such was belief in this, that fearful locals eventually exhumed poor Peg and reburied her in the bed of the river Eden beneath a huge slab.  It didn’t appease or restrain her vengeful spirit and still she rides to Crackenthorpe.

That was my story I decided as the road snaked down that curious bifurcated stretch off Shap Fell towards the gorgeous scars of the Lune Valley.  It was sometime after midnight, I sang along to the CD in the deck, my headlights lit her body by some pine trees on a bend.

Flash. A white dress, dark hair, rain-wracked on the motorway verge. Caught in the full beam glare. She stood seemingly motionless yet looking at me.  You know how some portraits’ gaze follows you round the room? Even at 70mph, in the rain and dark, i was sure she watched me drive by.

I braked carefully, cautious of the wet. There were no other cars around for a moment. I expected to see her car broken down, out of petrol perhaps but nothing.  Just the reflection of headlights on wet asphalt. 

I looked in my mirror. She wasn’t there.  The wind howled, rain squalled. There was nobody there. 

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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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