This Blog is going to feature reviews mainly and other occasional pieces orientated to the future. Nick Hubble @Contempislesfic @SocialHums
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This Blog is going to feature reviews mainly and other occasional pieces orientated to the future. Nick Hubble @Contempislesfic @SocialHums
Nina Allan’s new novel The Good Neighbours has just come out this month and so it seems a good moment to share this review of her previous book Ruby which first appeared in BSFA Review 13 (Spring 2021).
Ruby by Nina Allan (Titan Books, 2020)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
Titan have been publishing Allan’s work since they brought out an expanded edition of The Race in 2016. This was followed by The Rift in 2017 and an updated edition of The Silver Wind in 2019. Their latest offering from her is Ruby, which was originally published as Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories in 2013. As that earlier title indicates, this book consists of a sequence of linked stories. At first, they seem to be very loosely linked – tied together only by fleeting references to the eponymous Ruby, a film star whose career ends when she is imprisoned for murder – but more connections become apparent to the reader in later stories.
Indeed, when I got to the end, I had to fight hard against an overwhelming urge to go back to the beginning again with my new knowledge and put all the events in the stories together into one coherent plotline. However, that would be the wrong reason to read these beautiful and entrancing stories again. Not only is there no overall temporal continuity but also, to the extent that these are horror stories, the horror lies in wait for those determined to keep religiously to the straight and the narrow. Morally these stories are ‘chaotic neutral’ and trying to impose order on them would at best be inviting frustration and at worst risking getting trapped in some maze-like time loop, as happens to several characters in these stories. Paradoxically, though, for those prepared to embrace the apparent unreason of time paradoxes and coincidences that unspool sinuously through these stories, potential nightmares turn into dreams of possibility.
For example, in ‘Laburnams’, Christine ‘had often wondered if it was possible to take a wrong turning and end up living a life that was not your own’ and there are lot of people in these stories trapped in lives that are not their own. In ‘Wreck of the Julia’, this condition is explicitly linked to the evasion and lying inherent to south London lower-middle-class suburbs such as Croydon and Sidcup, which are very similar to the one I grew up in. And you don’t get out of those lives by conforming to the moral parameters that structure and limit them. Therefore, escape is itself a traumatic experience that scars and is only overcome retrospectively by sensing the rightness of the new life. The protagonist of ‘Stardust’ feels ‘the change happen, a discernible click, as if a key had been twisted inside me’.
Such transformations also have little to do with free choice and that is what makes them doubly scary. One of the protagonists tries to make sense of his experiences through ‘dream science’ and ‘the idea of the subconscious as a crime writer’ throwing out as many red herrings as useful clues. But it is only by negotiating both the red herrings and the clues that he finds his way again. These stories are not merely tales of the unexpected or simple mysteries but a series of labyrinthine twists which simultaneously fold in and out on themselves to reveal unexpected perspectives and hidden views.
The result of such an intricate weaving together of signs and wonders is a collection of stories that reads like a novel which you want to go on and on. So, while I didn’t immediately reread the stories, I would have been happy to have continued to lose myself within more of them for another thousand pages or so. Nevertheless, I didn’t end Ruby feeling unfulfilled because after thinking about it – and these stories do tend to embed themselves in your mind for a while – I realised that I could take the fluid mode of reading that the stories had seduced me into adopting and use it to read other stories and novels in productive ways. In this manner, Allan not only generates possibilities through her writing, but she also teaches her readers to generate possibilities through their reading.
This is a slightly expanded version, with links, of a review which first appeared in BSFA Review 14 (Summer 2021), with an additional afterword.
Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki (Verso, 2021)
Reviewed byNick Hubble
Verso are best known for publishing fairly weighty tomes of left-wing politics, history and theory, but in September 2019 they launched Verso Fiction: ‘a new series of uncompromisingly intelligent and beautiful books with an international focus.’ Terminal Boredom ticks all these boxes but more importantly it has an authentic edgy feel to it that is a welcome reminder of the days when spikiness and attitude were not just marketing categories but a genuine challenge to postwar consumerist complacency. While this period feel is not surprising given that the seven short stories collected here were first published in the 1970s and 1980s, it is a shock that it has taken over 35 years to translate the work of Izumi Suzuki (1949-1986) into English. I suspect that any Anglosphere publishers who might have contemplated it found the complete lack of sentiment too bleak. The overall themes are suggested by the title of the recent review of this edition in the New York Times: ‘Where Every Coupling Depends on Lies, and Men Are Aliens’. However, such themes are now commercially attractive and, more fundamentally, the context of reception has changed now. For example, while themes revolving around androgyny were countercultural in the 1970s and 1980s, the existence of nonbinary genders is now widely accepted within society and I suspect that this is the context in which Suzuki would be understood today.
The first story, ‘Women and Women’ (translated by Daniel Joseph; an extract from this is online here), originally published in 1977, is described as a ‘queer matriarchal utopia’ on the back cover but as a dystopia in the entry for Suzuki in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. However, it is more sophisticated than either of those possibilities; casting traditional gender roles as an adolescent fantasy. The story is ambivalent, registering the loss for the society that has gone but expressing no enthusiasm for a return to it. There is a sense that change will come one day but it will be in response to a call not yet apparent. The protagonist of the next story, ‘You May Dream’ (translated by David Boyd), rejects society because of the way it is structured: ‘Syzygy? Androgyny? I’m no man and I’m no woman. Who needs gender anyway? I just want to get out of this place, to be on my own.’ The movement between these two stories anticipates the complicated cultural shift in feminism over the last fifty years.
Part of the attraction of reading these stories, therefore, is the sense of how 1980s ‘Blank Generation’ concerns bleed into the present. This is most obvious in the title story (also translated by Joseph) which combines alienation with a shock ending. However, I preferred the stories that developed older SF ideas. ‘Night Picnic’, translated by Sam Bett with a nice touch of period American idiom, reads like a more extreme version of John Varley’s 1974 story ‘Picnic on Nearside’, which is referenced in the text. While Varley challenges sex and gender norms, Suzuki wittily deconstructs all such meanings, as her protagonist realises that ‘the idea of linear time does no one any good if all that matters is survival’. In contrast, ‘The Old Seaside Club’ feels almost like social realism, enhanced by the gritter British tone of Helen O’Horan’s translation. Amidst the bars and nightclubs of the off-planet seaside resort, the protagonist’s CHAIR insists on reminding her that ‘You have to cook, clean, look after the kids when they’re sick. You have to go out to work’. ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ (translated by Aiko Masubuchi) involves a disturbing gender/ageing paradox that recalls Heinlein’s ‘“—All You Zombies—”’ (1959).
There is enough here to see why Suzuki was considered, as the back-cover blurb notes, ‘a legend of Japanese science fiction and a countercultural icon’. I’ll certainly be looking out for Love<Death, a second collection of Suzuki’s stories that Verso will be publishing in 2022.
Afterword: Three of the translators – Sam Betts, Daniel Joseph and Helen O’Horan – discussed the collection at an event hosted by the Brooklyn-based Center for Fiction on 20 April 2021: ‘Japanese Literature in Translation: Izumi Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom’. I enjoyed this for its discussion of how they approached the translations, which I tried to reflect in the review above. In particular, I was intrigued by Helen O’Horan’s comments that she toned down the ‘northenness’ of one of the characters in the first draft of her translation of ‘The Old Seaside Club’. I’m also indebted to the discussion of John Varley and his collection Picnic on Nearside. I think the most relevant intertext, as stated above, is the actual ‘Picnic on Nearside’ story, but Varley is well worth reading for his own sake: ‘Bagatelle’, a story from Picnic on Nearside is available online. A couple of other interesting links were also shared at this event, including the Japanese publisher Bunyusha’s Susuki webpage. Finally, Daniel Joseph’s article, ‘How Izumi Suzuki Broke Science Fiction’s Boys’ Club’, puts here career into context. I agree that her stories remain as ‘disturbingly relevant as ever’.
This review first appeared in Foundation 138 (2021): 115-117.
Anne Charnock, Bridge 108 (47 North, 2020, 204 pp, £8.99)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble (Brunel University London)
Anne Charnock’s Bridge 108 has a curiously arresting cover. The use of only three colours – black, white and blue – and a very stark design with a vertical white column representing a river, or more likely a canal, and three simple black bridge outlines crossing it has a retro feel suggesting perhaps a classic dystopian novel. This is misleading not because the novel isn’t in some ways dystopian but because it downplays the very contemporary English feel of Charnock’s writing.
Although Bridge 108 is set in the same timeline as her first novel, A Calculated Life (2013), it reminds me more of her most-recent, Clarke-award winning novel Dreams Before the Start of Time (2017), which extrapolated current trends in reproductive technology over the next century or so. Similarly, while Bridge 108 is set some decades hence, its vision of climate change, refugees, and the dissolution of the public realm into various enclaves and zones with different levels of citizen rights, derives its moral force as a metaphorical criticism of what is happening now rather than as an extrapolative warning of what will happen if we carry on as we are. This is an important distinction to bear in mind because it means the novel is not a straightforwardly-realist depiction of what is to come but rather an uncanny alternate history of the near future. As a result, there is a disjuncture between the easy flow of the present-tense narration and the deeply unsettling effect of what we’re being told, so that Bridge 108 might even be read as horror fiction.
Indeed, the novel rather fluidly shifts genre as it moves through different point-of-view narrators so that its readers are unable to settle into a preconception of how to read the text. For example, the opening of the novel seems to be setting up the kind of YA post-apocalyptic, dystopian adventure story that has been popular for the last decade or so. Twelve-year-old Caleb lives with two younger boys on the top of a tower block somewhere south of Manchester and works all day as part of a small sweated garment business run by the block’s caretaker, Ma Lexie. We learn from his narration how he was found wandering on the roads of northern France by a people courier, Skylark, after having become separated from his mother while fleeing to England from drought-stricken regions further south. From his roof, Caleb can communicate with Odette, an older girl who tends the gardens on top of the adjoining block, by throwing messages across inside a plastic bottle. Together they hatch a plan to escape not just from their respective blocks, but from the enclave that contains them and to find their way by walking along the canals across the border into Wales. The scene seems set for a series of peripatetic adventures in which, after many setbacks, the two triumph over adversity and make new lives in Wales, unscathed but not unchanged. However, when they do escape, things fall out very differently and Caleb quickly ditches Odette, and makes off on his own, with the intention of fulfilling his mother’s original plan of presenting himself to a police station so that he can be taken to a reception centre for refugees. Then the narrative point-of-view switches to Skylark and we’re suddenly into a different, more adult story.
Skylark gives us more of an indirect picture of the series of enclaves across England, which seem partly to be located around council estates, and function as semi-autonomous labour zones, into which the police don’t often bother to venture. In this part of the book, we also learn more about Ma Lexie and her relationship with her brother-in-law, Jaspar, head of the ‘clan family’ running the waste and recycling system in their enclave. In a different type of novel, we might see this as world-building but here the world being portrayed is the one we live in, albeit projected into the future. Later in the novel, in a section which Jaspar himself narrates, we learn that the family has held the recycling contract for at least several generations. However, they have only recently, under Jaspar’s management, introduced a full range of conveyor belts and machinery, which they maintain with their ‘own workshop in the yard to print spare parts’. These sections estrange the reader because the technological and social frameworks seem to come from different time periods. Either a post-welfare social system has grown up over the space of some decades but technology has not moved forward or we’re in a relatively near-future England in which the past few decades have seen a different social history to the one that has actually happened. The first of these options is the more likely – the process of how individual families came to take over rubbish collection was described in A Calculated Life – but it’s a mark of the deceptive subtlety and sophistication of Charnock’s writing that these questions arise in the reader’s mind.
Direct culture clash between enclave and middle-class professional values features only briefly in the novel in the mistaken assumption of the undercover immigration officer that he can pass unnoticed in the enclave while trying to investigate Ma Lexie. Nonetheless, as in this example, the action of the novel consistently turns on the mismatch of worldviews, generating false assumptions in characters as to their best line of behaviour. The most obvious of these occasions is when Caleb, to whose narrative we return periodically, allows himself to be convinced by Jerome’s belief in the system while sitting under the titular bridge. Jerome is not a bad person relative to the cast of the novel but compared to the much more deeply unpleasant Jaspar, he has a shocking inability to understand how the world actually works. At its worst, as in the immigration system portrayed in the novel, this misunderstanding reaches a level of instrumental blindness that enables a banal, evil system of oppression to persist. The question of Bridge 108 is whether Caleb learns how to judge the right course of action.
Caleb’s name echoes the protagonist of William Godwin’s Gothic novel, Caleb Williams (1794), who is also a poor, orphaned boy who undergoes various misadventures including spending time on the run outside the law. Godwin’s bildungsromanis intended to illustrate his anarchist ideas about political justice, but the difference between the original manuscript ending (included in modern editions) and the published version render the overall message somewhat ambiguous, beyond the clear criticism of the aristocracy, and raises the issue of what Caleb Williams has actually learnt. Charnock’s novel is similarly open-ended. My instinct was to scream out to Caleb, ‘no, don’t do that!’ Things might work out well or they might work out very badly for him. More than likely, judging from the novel as a whole – and what the character in A Calculated Life, who may or may not be an older version of Caleb, is doing – the outcome of his final choice will have mixed consequences. Charnock does not portray a world in which people live happily ever after but it is a world in which people can live. Perhaps what Caleb learns in this twenty-first century bildungsroman is simply that there is no correct way of doing things and that one should always be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances.
As I noted in my end-of-year post, ‘What I Did in 2020: A Brief Cultural Review’, more reflections on Generation X (1991) would follow and here they are in the form of an expanded version of my paper for the online conference, ‘Douglas Coupland and the Art of the “Extreme Present”’, 23-24 April 2021. This paper has got a sociological dimension that relates to a science-fictional perspective. Generation X is not SF in the same way that Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) and Generation A (2009) are (I’m not going to bother inserting ‘arguably’ in this statement; from my pov these books are SF). However, Generation X – i.e. the actual generation of people born in the 60s and 70s, including myself – is inherently science-fictional in the negative sense that we were brought up to expect a (millennial) future that has never quite materialised. The cultural markers of this expectation, such as Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the comic 2000AD (1977-) – which I’ve blogged about in three instalments here, here and here – and even my teenage obsession, Blake’s 7, remain more futuristic than the dull dystopian mundane realities of 2021. Obviously, we’re not the only generation who have been swindled out of their futures and we’re less than innocent with respect to our successors – I try and touch on some of that in what follows (although there is still more to write before I get it fully into the shape I want).
‘All Happinesses Are Sterile; All Sadnesses Go Unpitied’: A Gen Xer Looks Back on Generation X
In February 2020, I reread Generation X for the first time since the 1990s, tweeting as I went, and then forgot about it until December, when looking back on the year I realised that, despite being nearly thirty years old, it was one of the texts I’d read recently that spoke most strongly to my experience of the Covid pandemic. This was due to its discussion of ‘Survivulousness’ – ‘the tendency to visualize oneself enjoying being the last remaining person on Earth’ (Coupland 69) – which is a familiar concept from cosy catastrophes such as John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), a novel which is referenced in both Generation X (58) and Girlfriend in a Coma. Both of these novels, and other texts by Coupland, evoke a strong sense of waiting for the end of the world, which is overdetermined; in Generation X the end is imagined as a nuclear bomb, in Girlfriend in a Coma (as far as I recall) it’s more generally connected to the end of meaning, in Generation A the focus is more directly on climate change. There is a tension between whether this end is the actual end of the world or simply the end of the world as we know it. The latter is part and parcel of the continual process of change that characterises the ‘accelerated culture’ that we live in, but it is always haunted by the former. Roberts (2020) suggests that the real anxiety is that because we are unable to control the end, we are unable to control the frame which gives meaning to our lives. Therefore, we like stories of the end (all that post-apocalyptic disaster fiction like The Road, which is really just a comfort read) because the clock gets stopped on a society we understand and our life has meaning within that frame. I think Coupland resists this kind of narrative. Generation X and much of his other fiction is about breaking that frame and taking the risk that our lives might not be easily understandable; that we might die outside meaning but that’s the price we pay for living. Or, to put it the other way round, the sterility of happiness and unpitied sadness are the price we pay for the ‘security’ of stable lives within a very rigid frame of meaning.
I wrote a short piece on rereading Generation X in a pandemic year for the online magazine Strange Horizons’ ‘2020 in Review’ round-up. Here, I implied straightforward identification on my part with Coupland’s protagonists on the grounds that ‘I grew up with a completely different worldview to my parents and did my share of McJobs in the 1980s [or, leastways the 80s British equivalents: bingo hall cashier, Travellers’ Fare retail assistant, tender clerk etc]’. However, the truth is more complicated than this because, apart from the fact that Andy, Dag, and Claire still appear impossibly glamorous to my postwar-Britain-conditioned sensibility, I’ve never really identified as being a member of Generation X until very recently when it finally dawned on me that, born as I was in 1965, being Gen X (which Wikipedia categorises as the generation born between 1965-1980, despite earlier classifications having it as 1961-1981) is the only thing that stands between me and being a boomer. That has seemed increasingly important in the changed political context following the global financial crash in 2008 and, more recently, the EU referendum result, the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the 2019 landslide election of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. However, if I look back to the 1980s and 1990s, I didn’t see boomers as ‘the other’; in fact, I don’t even think I had encountered the term beyond being aware of the fact of the existence of an historical ‘baby boom’ following WW2. To the extent that I thought about that generation at all, it was from a European perspective of ‘the 1968 generation’ that I viewed as politically radical and in some respects even revolutionary. In contrast, ‘Generation X’ seemed to be a term taken from market research rather than political analysis: a consumer-orientated soft-cultural product of the media, coinciding with phenomena such as the migration of ‘cult fiction’ from book shops into Virgin Megastores.
In any case, the ‘others’ in Generation X are not even boomers but yuppies and in 1980s Britain we did know what yuppies were: Tories and careerists who epitomised all that was wrong with Thatcherism. What I didn’t have was any sort of contextual sense of yuppies as a product of the counterculture, such as Dag’s former boss, Martin, who ‘like most embittered ex-hippies, is a yuppie’ (Coupland 25), and therefore I just didn’t understand that aspect of the novel at all. It just seemed very apolitical to me; even if you take into account Dag’s propensity to vandalise cars, it is very difficult to read any class politics into the text. In Britain, Andy and Claire would have been in the Labour Party and contributed to the 1997 Labour landslide which ended 18 years of Tory rule. Ironically, the failings of the resulting Blair Government – a legacy of social inequality, privatisation of public services, and neo-imperial military intervention – would eventually be related to a British Generation X, who came to be seen in similar light to the yuppies in Generation X (see e.g. Kennedy 2018).
By the point in the late 1990s that I got around to reading the novel, I was already a homeowner, which, Andy tells us, ‘has to be the kiss of death, personality wise’ (Coupland 166). I enjoyed the novel as a kind of Salingeresque fable but it seemed to relate to a period of life I’d moved on from. In other words, I missed out on any sort of positive sense of recognition from reading Generation X in the 1990s. It was only on reading Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats (2018) that I realised that not only were we Gen Xers a thing but also that we were on the wrong side of a cultural divide between ‘two sets of essentially well-intentioned people who share causes in common but are finding it increasingly difficult to communicate’ (187). As Kennedy explains:
Often, broadsheet cultural analysis positions Britain’s great cultural divide as a scission between baby boomers and millennials, but this elides the significant role of Generation X, those who came of age more or less in time for at least part of acid house and were on their second or third General Election when Blair smarmed his way into Downing Street. Many of the swing voters who backed New Labour, no doubt, were born in the Forties and Fifties, but the cultural pulse of Cool Britannia was supplied by a group who came into the world sometime between the Beatles’ shift into psychedelia and the supposed Year Zero of punk, Generation X were the tastemakers of Cool Britannia, and many of their cultural preferences have survived, in various mutant forms, into a present that pitches them into a complex rivalry with their successors. The tastes of my generation – that nameless one whose early adulthood was contextualised by the ‘maturation’ of Blair into a dogmatic interventionist – and the one beneath it are often conflated, incorrectly, as part of this antagonism, and this is most commonly seen in the derision directed at ‘hipsters’. (190-1)
There was much for me to recognise in Kennedy’s account because I am in many ways typical of those he describes ‘who participated in the Poll Tax Riots [in Colchester rather than Central London in my case] and have clear memories of the Miners’ Strike’ (204). I have also got some Public Enemy LPs (CDs, even) and am nostalgic to some extent ‘for postwar social social democratic norms and their attendant culture’ (210). Moreover, I lived in Brighton – ‘the last citadel of Cool Britannia’ (189), which he focuses on – throughout the New Labour years. In fact, I arrived there in 1992 at a very early stage of the gentrification (which is one reason that we were just about able to buy a house) and only left in 2010, shortly after voting for Caroline Lucas of the Green Party as the MP for Brighton Pavilion. However, in other ways I don’t quite fit the model: I never bought a Vespa or any buy-to-let properties, I’m not especially grumpy or contrarian, and although I had originally been a Labour Party member, I left in 1996 because I was already unhappy with the general feel of what Blair was doing. However, I still voted for Labour until 2010 and I was very happy on the day after the 1997 election (which marked the end of 18 years of Tory misrule), when complete strangers were greeting each other with ‘isn’t it great’ on Brighton seafront. So, on the whole, I was part of that Gen X culture and therefore when reading Kennedy’s entertaining but effective critique, I suddenly found myself pondering in Mitchell-and-Webb style, ‘are we [Gen Xers] the baddies?’
I have explained this at some length because it gives some political background on the context of my rereading of Generation X. The more immediate context though was that I was feeling depressed in February 2020 following an academic year that had so far been marked by ill health and floods wreaking chaos on my 400+ mile weekly commute (although the year would, of course, get worse). The prospect of another night in a Travelodge room overlooking Poundland, which is where I stay while at work, drove me impulsively to grab my fluorescent pink paperback edition of Generation X off my office book shelves (the remaining contents of which were later devastated during the long months of lockdown when, undetected, the water cooler on the floor above malfunctioned and systematically flooded my office). Despite initial scepticism that this was a good idea, I quickly found myself hooked and my (random) decision to tweet my re-reading intensified the experience and it became a retrospective exercise in positive identification. In short, if I had to carry the label of Gen X for the various reasons listed above then at least I was going to properly embrace the cultural identification which went with it and own it.
A bigger question, though, is why has generational analysis become more important politically and sociologically than formerly? In the 1990s, when analysis of Generation X became prominent within the media, Alex Ross dismissed focus on generational identity as ‘a fruitless project blending the principles of sociology and astrology’ (qtd Ortner 419). However, attitudes have changed. In ‘Generation X: A Critical Sociological Perspective’ (2017), Stephen Katz notes the move away from ‘the assumption that time-based and age-based experiences are interchangeable in life-course models of cohort trajectories’ (Katz 12): turning 30, 40 or 50 today doesn’t have the same significances and associations as in the 1950s or the 1970s (and certainly bears little comparison with pre-WW2 experience). This shift was driven by the size of the baby boom generation in the context of the specific postwar conditions in the industrial west: prosperity, new media and communication networks, rapid social change. As Katz explains, these developments didn’t just set the template for one generation but also established the parameters for subsequent generations:
The utopian promises of accessible education, social mobility, scientific progress, racial and gender equality, political rebellion, and technological innovation that accompanied the Baby Boomer life course, and spread beyond its location, created compelling expectations for future generations such that they would become forms of pre-destined generational consciousness. Thus Generation X grew into a lived generational space whose boundaries, experiences and possibilities have already been extended by the previous generation. (Katz 15)
The obvious problem with the emergence of the Boomer generation laying down a pre-formed paradigm that Generation X and subsequent generations are trapped within began to manifest itself almost immediately. Katz provides a useful history of ‘Generation X’ as a symbolic label. The photographer Robert Capa used it for his 1954 photos of young people disillusioned by the future before them, with the ‘X’ standing for the as-yet unknown value of that future. A 1964 British book, Generation X, by Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett, was based on interviews with mods and rockers, with the X functioning like the X of an X-rated film (and this title later remanifested as the name of the short-lived Billy Idol band in the late 1970s, which I was particularly aware of because I come from Bromley). When US demographers and marketers identified the emergence of a distinctive generation in the mid-1980s (Ortner 416), they were clearly in need of a label (‘baby busters’ didn’t catch on) and we can see how the two came together. However, it was Coupland’s Generation X that actually made the connection and ‘set and sealed’ the term into public culture:
While Coupland drew upon a punk image of blankness for his image of “X” […], he also wrote a compassionate and empathetic story that countered growing negative attributes defining Generation X and being made popular by films such as Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991). Coupland’s fiction exposed the conflicts and dichotomies of Generation X that, unlike the Baby Boom Generation before it and the Millennials who followed, were unique to this generation and created the “common destiny” (in [Karl] Mannheim’s terms) that united the generation’s disparate identities. (Katz 16)
In other words, Generation X is one of those rare novels that has had direct major real-world impact (as opposed to more indirect and diffuse forms of cultural impact, which it has also had). As is well known, Coupland was originally contracted to write a field guide to a post-boomer sensibility and took the opportunity to write fiction instead but his idea of ‘Generation X’ had already gone through several iterations as, first, a September 1987 article for the Vancouver Sun with illustrations by Paul Rivoche, and, then, a comic strip written by Coupland and drawn by Rivoche (see here). Evolutionary traces of these earlier forms are clearly present in the novel, which includes both comic panels and a handbook-style glossary of neologisms scattered throughout at the foot of many pages.
While Sherry Ortner highlights both the problematic issue of ‘the whiteness of Generation X’ (see 420-421) and more generally that the idea of ‘a single generational consciousness is highly implausible’ (420) because of social difference, she is also certain (writing in the late 1990s) that it exists as an element of social space and that the sociological/anthropological imperative is therefore to locate it correctly. Her argument is that the idea of Generation X is ‘an attempt to deal with profound changes in the US middle class in the late 20th century’ (420). In particular, that it is ‘first and foremost, about identity through work’ (422) – McJobs – but also concerned with home ownership. She then goes on to discuss theorisations of postmodernism and late capitalism as ‘a product of the expansion and transformation of the middle class’ (422).
At first this seems an analysis that applies more to the US than the UK because postwar Britain (1945-1973) is usually defined in terms of rising working-class income rather than an expanded middle class. However, by noting that ‘the lower middle class is really, one might argue, the working class in middle-class clothing (i.e., in its housing, as well as in other aspects of material culture)’ (423) Ortner makes comparison between the two countries possible. Irrespective of how they defined their class exactly, people in this category, felt economically secure in the 1950s and 1960s and as archetypally American (or British in the UK): ‘The culture of “the fifties,” with its conservative politics and its repressive gender and sexual relations, was arguably their culture, hegemonized in part by the growth of television’ (Ortner 423). We still feel the effects of this culture – Trump, Brexit etc – and it is directly acknowledged in Generation X by references to people like Irene and Phil who live in a ‘permanent 1950s’ (Coupland, 128); and who no longer seem quite so ‘sweet’ today.
Such references to the 1950s and also to ‘Texlahoma’, the ‘asteroid orbiting the earth, where the year is permanently 1974’ (Coupland 46) bring to mind Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959), in which the protagonist Ragle Gumm lives in an ersatz 1950s bubble that is being maintained for him in the novel’s radically-altered ‘present’ of 1997. In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson argues that Dick’s novel has ‘paradigmatic value […] for questions of history and historicity in general’ (283). Jameson suggests that the 1950s America of small-town life and conformism has no reality other than its own mass cultural representation; and that, in effect, there is no such thing as history itself. Therefore, Time Out of Joint may be seen as both (an early) critique and mode of resistance to the condition of postmodernity: ‘Reification is […] built into the novel itself and […] recuperated as a form of praxis […]. [R]eification ceases to be a[n] […] alienating process […] and is rather transferred to the side of human energies and human possibilities’ (Jameson 285). In other words, Dick’s imagined future is something of a red herring beyond the fact that it serves to show up the reality of the 1950s Eisenhower America, which Dick was living and writing in, as a construct that can be moved on from; it finagles Cold War anxieties through sleight of hand in such a manner that they generate the possibility of a future rather an overwhelming sense of waiting for the end.
Something like this mechanism is also at work in Generation X. While Coupland is clearly dissatisfied not just with ‘knee-jerk irony’ – ‘The tendency to make flippant ironic comments as a reflexive matter of course in everyday conversation’ (Coupland 174n) – ‘but also with the still accumulating and apparently ineluctable inheritance of ironic postmodernism’ (Forshaw 39), the novel does embrace a Dickian mode of postmodern story-telling – indeed, that is pretty much what it consists of – which functions as a repeated attempt to escape from the Chinese-box-like restrictions of generation even if it is impossible to return to ‘genuine capital H history times’ (Coupland 175). In the process, what comes across from Generation X is the idea that the post-1974 period is a construct that we can possibly find a way from moving on from – as Andy, Claire and Dag do – without having to remain in that condition of waiting for the end which permeates the earlier part of the novel.
In conclusion, Generation X, which includes for Ortner both the children of lower-middle-class (in UK terms, this would include many we would categorise as working-class) families and upper-middle-class families, is characterised by the shared ‘structures of feeling generated around [the] abyss’ (Ortner 423) created by the top and the bottom of the middle class pulling apart from the early 1970s onwards (in the UK this was experienced as the halt in the rise of postwar working-class incomes). In Generation X this symbolic and material schism is marked by a sense of history having stopped around the time of the 1973 Oil Crisis with the result that the promise of Andy’s family’s photo, in which ‘we’re beaming earnestly to the right, off toward what seems to be the future’ (Coupland 153), has been stalled (or, as it’s put in The Gum Thief (2007): ‘Time stopped ten minutes before they cancelled the Apollo programme’ ). As Andy ruminates:
You see when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied. (Coupland 171).
While this might be read as postmodern melancholy, I would contend it should be interpreted as historical critique. In this respect, the novel’s ending with the rediscovery of ‘affect’ and Andy, Dag and Claire’s relocation to Mexico, represents – in Jameson’s terms – a recuperation of reification as praxis, which is in itself a form of agency, and an escape out of the restrictive category of generation. But although Coupland’s protagonists (arguably) escape in this manner, it is unclear whether the real-life Generation X have ever broken free of their lived generational space whose boundaries, experiences and possibilities were shaped by the previous generation. Rather, the alienation and rootlessness of Gen Xers in the 1980s and early 1990s was a manifestation of the return of the emotional truths repressed by their parents’ generation in the name of comfort and silence, but awareness of that hasn’t stopped a similar dynamic from developing between the Xers and their own children. Thirty years on from Generation X’s first publication, as the pandemic makes us painfully aware of the extent to which society is creaking painfully around us, it’s finally time to break free of those destructive cycles.
[The next enlargement of this draft essay will include more textual analysis of Generation X and, possibly, of Generation A, which would specifically concern the process of breaking free from the generational cycle. Also I still need to incorporate my analysis of Dag’s claim to be ‘a lesbian trapped inside a man’s body’ (Coupland 20) in relation to contemporary theory on that topic (Zita 1992)]
Coupland, Douglas. Generation X. London: Abacus, 1996 .
Forshaw, Mark. ‘Douglas Coupland: In and Out of “Ironic Hell”’. Critical Survey, 12: 3 (2000): 39-58.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.
Katz, Stephen. ‘Generation X: A Critical Sociological Perspective’. Journal of the American Society on Aging, 41: 3 (Fall 2017): 12-19.
Kennedy, Joe. Authentocrats. London: Repeater, 2018.
Ortner, Sherry B. ‘Generation X: Anthropology in a Media-Saturated World’. Cultural Anthropology, 13: 3 (Aug., 1998): 414-440.
Roberts, Adam. It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? London: Elliott & Thompson, 2020.
Zita, Jacqueline N. ‘Male Lesbians and the Postmodernist Body’. Hypatia, 7: 4 (Autumn 1992): 106-127.
I’m not going to comment here on the issues and problems with the con, which are already well-documented and widely discussed, but instead write about some aspects of the panels I went to that really interested me. Thanks to all the volunteers who kept the show on the road despite what were obviously difficult conditions.
I only joined the con in March after the point when it was confirmed that it would be online only. I didn’t fancy it as a hybrid event and I certainly wasn’t going to go in person at this point in time (although I’m very much looking forward to doing more in person over the coming months). Looking to the years ahead, there is already a lot of discussion as to how things might function and on the desirability of running completely hybrid events (if technically feasible), or whether it might be more practical to stream selected panels to an online-only ‘supporting membership’.
The latter is effectively what I did this year (at full rate) because I had other things to fit in, including having my Astra Zeneca vaccination on the Saturday, with the consequence that I was a bit woozy on the Sunday in particular and had to go back to bed after the bid session; only getting up for the awards. Then, due to me getting the timings wrong on the Monday, I tuned in just in time for the end of the ‘Celebrating Storm Constantine’ panel with Ian Whates, Donna Scott, Liz Williams and Ian Watson. So, this report would be limited to the three panels I saw – not going into the details of either my laboured progress through the invisible maze or my spectacularly inept game of Tetris – if it wasn’t for the fact that there is an extra week to go back and watch panels on the ‘holodeck’ on the con viewing platform.
Therefore I was able after all to watch the Storm Constantine panel, celebrating the life of a writer who sadly passed away in January this year (the Guardian obituary is here). I have read the first Wraeththu trilogy in the past and am intending to reread it (if I can find my copy) at some point this year before reading more of her work. It was interesting to listen to the various reminiscences but what particularly came through was the importance of recording the history, connections and influences of an important and significant writer who is much less recognised and acknowledged by SFF criticism, let alone the literary and publishing mainstream, than she deserves.
I managed to catch up with the Newcon Press Book Launch, which I missed on the Saturday because the programme listed it at the wrong time. I also caught up with ‘The Last 20 Years: SF in the 21st Century’, which I thought I’d failed to get into on Friday evening due to my own errors but apparently just didn’t stream at the right time (and indeed had a few technical glitches within). When I finally watched this late on Tuesday night, it turned out to be a fascinating and rather disturbing panel. Graham Sleight moderated Dan Abnett, Anne Charnock, and Stephanie Saulter. Initially discussing what for them illustrates some of the changes of the past twenty years, the panel identified the extent and importance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Dan), the writing of genre by literary writers such as Kate Atkinson and John Lanchester (Anne), and the end of SF as a predominantly white male preserve as evidenced by the Clarke Award successes of Tade Thompson and Namwali Serpell and the defeat of the ‘puppies’, who now look very much like a last desperate stand on behalf of white supremacists against the flood of diversity (Stephanie). I think those selections work incredibly well to describe the main trends in what we can see as a massive ongoing realignment of the symbolic order in which the old primacy of the white, heterosexual, cis, male, bourgeois, classical liberal subject is being decentred with the consequence that all the traditional literary and cultural hierarchies no longer hold. (Apart from anything else, the word ‘canon’ now functions completely differently to how it did in the 20th Century). This has resulted in, as Charnock said, a lot of weird and surrealistic fiction; reflecting, as Saulter said, on the unstable world surrounding us.
However, the second part of the panel which compared this cultural revolution to the political events and trends of the 21st Century so far was much more alarming. As Dan put it, ‘twenty years of awful things’ means we are looking for assurance from long-established mythologies – whether MCU, SFnal, classical or folk lore – built up of familiar, generational knowledge to the extent that they are now embedded in our cultural fabric. At the same time external political reality – fake news etc – is now so unreliable that people are developing a ‘cargo cult mentality of looking at out past and making trustworthy gods out of the things that were once washed up and which we recognise … raising the Marvel comics is like raising Atlantis’. Dan did pause at this point to wonder if it was going too far but there is a lot of validity to this analysis. We do now live in a disturbing world (‘we’ here refers to people in the industrialised global North who became acclimatised to stable, prosperous years in the decades following WW2). I don’t think there is any point standing on this cargo-cult beach and holding out our hands Cnut-like and ordering the waves to stop. We have no choice but to traverse the weirdness and hope too many people don’t get swept away. Scary! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve wanted my whole life not to be in Kansas anymore but now we’re really not in Kansas anymore and there is no sign of my scarecrow, tin man and lion. Maybe I needed to look in the companion panel, ‘The Last 20 Years: Fantasy in the 21st Century’?
I did manage to watch this panel (featuring Juliet McKenna, Tiffani Angus, Ekpeki Donald Oghenechovwe and Jacey Bedford) live on the programme platform. This was less apocalyptic – in part because fantasy is not, like SF, so directly focused on the present with respect to the future, but more focused on the present with respect to the past. However, this meant that there was also here a strong sense of the turn to generational knowledge and to myths and folk lore embedded in our cultural fabric. I suppose this is always inherent to fantasy, so that the main change in the last twenty years is that fantasy has become more popular and more culturally prominent than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, which seem to me to have been a period of low ebb following the 1960s and 1970s. (Anecdotally, for example, we read A Wizard of Earthsea in-class in my comprehensive at the end of the 1970s but when being interviewed for an English teaching job at a comp in the mid-1990s, my suggestion that teenagers might be attracted to reading fantasy was treated with absolute disdain and visible expressions of disgust. I suspect the equivalent people today would be more appreciative once again).
In this respect, I was very interested in the discussion concerning the relation of adult fantasy to children’s fantasy books and in particular the idea expressed by Juliet that Liz Williams’s Comet Weather (which was on the shortlist for the BSFA Best Novel Award) is particularly popular with adults who as children read certain kinds of books. I think she (I can’t find the panel on the holodeck so I’m relying on memory) was referring in particular to E. Nesbit’s Bastable books, which I can’t remember if I have read any of (although having read about Nesbit in Williams’s Miracles of Our Own: A History of Paganism , I obviously need to go back to those). In any case, I also had the impression when reading Comet Weather, which I really enjoyed, that it was reminiscent of the feel of many of the books, principally written between c1900 and c1970, that I borrowed every week from West Wickham’s Children’s Library while growing up. That’s an interesting phenomenon that I shall mull over while reading Blackthorn Winter, the sequel to Comet Weather (I was wondering if there were going to be four in the series, aligned to the seasons, and it was good to have this confirmed at the NewCon book launch). Other interesting points in the panel concerned the global reach of fantasy and the impact of various publishing formats, such as ebook novellas. The changing representation of gender and sexuality was another key point of discussion, as was the restrictions in writing about such topics on those African writers based in countries where homosexuality remains illegal.
On Saturday – after my jab but before my immune system overwhelmed me with its response – I accessed two panels via Gather Town: ‘Working Class Heroes’ and ‘How to Train Your Spaceship: The Living Ship’. The latter of these – with Edward James, Elizabeth Bear, Justina Robson, Charlie Stross, and JRH Lawless – was surprisingly philosophical (in a fun way) and came pretty close to suggesting that actually it’s the spaceships who are training us. However, I want to say a little more about the former panel – with Farah Mendlesohn, Stewart Hotson, Ali Baker, Ken Macleod and Charlie Stross – because I publish frequently on working-class and proletarian writing, one of my current projects is concerned with social change in relation to class consciousness and self-reflexivity, I’m guest-editing a special issue of Vector on ‘SFF and Class’, and this is an opportunity for thinking aloud and just seeing where it takes me.
I missed the beginning of the panel, switching on just at the point when Stewart was commenting on how stories featuring working-class people are often about getting out of the class and ‘getting on’, rather than establishing actualisation and agency within that class position. My first thought was how little has changed because people were saying similar things about working-class representation in the 1930s although then the debate often centred on working-class writers, who were open to the accusation that all they were doing was elevating their own position. For example, George Orwell – looking back on a decade in which working-class writers such as James Hanley, Jack Common and Walter Greenwood were prominent – discusses Lionel Britton’s Hunger and Love (1931) in ‘The Proletarian Writer’ (1940):
This was an outstanding book and I think in a way it is representative of proletarian literature. Well, what is it about? It is about a young proletarian who wishes he wasn’t a proletarian. It simply goes on and on about the intolerable conditions of working-class life, the fact that the roof leaks and the sink smells and all the rest of it. Now, you couldn’t found a literature on the fact that the sink smells. As a convention it isn’t likely to last so long as the siege of Troy. And behind this book, and lots of others like it, you can see what is really the history of a proletarian writer nowadays. Through some accident – very often it is simply due to having a long period on the dole – a young man of the working class gets a chance to educate himself. Then he starts writing books, and naturally he makes use of his early experiences, his sufferings under poverty, his revolt against the existing system, and so forth. But he isn’t really creating an independent literature. He writes in the bourgeois manner, in the middle-class dialect. He is simply the black sheep of the bourgeois family, using the old methods for slightly different purposes. Don’t mistake me. I’m not saying that he can’t be as good a writer as anyone else; but if he is, it won’t be because he is a working man but because he is a talented person who has learnt to write well. So long as the bourgeoisie are the dominant class, literature must be bourgeois.
(Incidentally, Hunger and Love is a much more interesting and ambitious book than this suggests, and SFnal in some respects. I’m intending to write a future blog post on it as part of my ongoing series writing about interwar texts as SFF, the latest of which was on Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year).
I think the key point here is that we do still live in a bourgeois culture and therefore it is difficult for any writer (irrespective of their precise class identity) to articulate working-class agency and actualisation because our culture as a whole is still predicated on notions of identity and subjectivity that simply don’t allow for the existence of even the possibility of working-class agency and actualisation. Furthermore, beyond this issue of the nature of dominant ideology, there also remain central oppositions of class interests that lead to direct intervention by ruling interests – through political legislation, policing, management, concerted media action etc – in order to prevent the development of any collective form of working-class agency and actualisation. The history of these things often goes in cycles, so that in Britain periods of relative liberalisation (the 1960s) have alternated with periods of more overt oppression (the Thatcherite 1980s). However, since the 2008 financial crash and the election of a sequence of increasingly more reactionary Conservative governments from 2010 onwards, the political situation today is probably more polarised than at any time since the 1930s.
However, what has changed is that bourgeois ideology is no longer as dominant as when Orwell was writing. As I’ve noted above, there is an ongoing realignment of the symbolic order in which the old primacy of the white, male, bourgeois, classical liberal subject is being decentred with the consequence that all the traditional literary and cultural hierarchies no longer hold. This is why the current British government are intensifying the culture war, not to distract us from economic arguments, but as part of a scorched-earth, last-ditch attempt to maintain the bourgeois order (although, if one is cynical about it, they might even be interpreted as attempting to go back even further to some form of neo-feudal order). In this context, representation within SFF – which has after all been the dominant form of film and TV fiction for at least the duration of the current century, and is arguably on the point of becoming (if it hasn’t already done so) the dominant form of book fiction – has become an area of major cultural and political importance. (There’s a lot more that could be said about this than I have space for here. These discussions are ongoing, as we know, and will cluster around different specific foci at any one time such as, for example, the recent debate surrounding SFF set in empires – I’m hoping to come back at some point and frame some of these individual debates within the larger context).
Another important point coming across in the panel discussion was, as (I think) Farah summarised, ‘In Britain, class is almost a caste system based on ancestry’. This has changed since Orwell’s time. In the 1930s, the vast majority of the British population were working-class, which was both a cultural identity aligned with a structure of feeling described by the historian Eric Hobsbawm as a ‘common proletarian way of life’ and a reflection of the fact that most people worked as some form of skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled labour. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and the ‘common proletarian way of life’ is a fading sepia-hued memory and most people don’t work in those types of occupations, but there seems to still be a majority of British people self-defining as working-class. This might mean they come from a council estate, or it might be a political identification, or it might be a reference to childhood circumstances, or it might be a broad cultural identification. What it is not a direct indicator of – as discussed in the panel – is income, wealth and home-ownership status. (The category of 55+ home-owning, financially stable, working-class-identifying voters living in the North of England has now entered Pol-Sci folklore for its support of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s overturning of Labour’s ‘red wall’. This is despite the fact that most Labour voters and trade union members backed neither of these causes. I will at some point – possibly on my other blog – write about these topics in more detail with references).
Furthermore, as everyone knows, class identification in Britain is often relational and/or situational. That it is to say that it is often dependent on circumstances whether there is an upside to positioning oneself as working class or middle class and many people will modulate their accent/presentation/appearance depending on what they deem is likely to be most beneficial for them or least likely to lead to confrontation. I’m not alone in thinking of these aspects of British society as a type of pantomime that is enjoyed (on the whole) by those familiar through experience with the conventions, but a source of bemused incomprehension to the uninitiated. All the same, nobody apart from the most ardent panto fans really wants to get dragged up on stage and thrust into the spotlight, fully exposed to the view of all. Therefore, perhaps we could all just move on from the ‘yah boo, look behind you, oh yes I am, oh no you’re not’ version of class because this really is a distraction from building a functional politics for the 21st Century, which takes advantage of the new possibilities generated by the erosion of bourgeois ideology. This is not to say we should abandon ‘class’ as a tool of analysis or a basis for praxis, but that we should use ‘working class’ more in the wider sense of applying to those dependent on waged employment rather than in the narrower (British) identity sense.
None of this, however, automatically makes it easier for writers to demonstrate agency and actualisation distinct from ‘getting on’. The panel went on to discuss a number of follow-up questions framed by Farah as ‘Do the poor have to be sidekicks? Do heroes have to be middle class? Are there two many heroes and not enough unions? (One of my takeaways from this panel was that I need to read/watch The Expanse). There was also an important discussion of gender and class, with Ali pointing out that some male working-class jobs – e.g. posties – provide free time later in the day in which adventures could be had (i.e. if one was the hero of an SFF novel), whereas working-class jobs for women in retail are more likely to take up all the day: there aren’t many books in which the hero works a checkout at Sainsbury’s. (The only example I can think of off the top of my head is the protagonist – although she is a supermarket supervisor rather than till operative – of one of the chapters in Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker-Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, a mainstream book which I think most SFF readers would enjoy. Although the character doesn’t have an adventure, she is represented as actualised and with agency). Farah then pointed out that many working-class women went into teaching exactly for this reason of it not taking up the whole day. For all the recent discussion of the numbers of academics who are second- or third-generation academics, I also think that significant numbers of working- and lower-middle-class people went into academia from the 1980s onwards for similar reasons. Certainly most of the academics I know well are first generation and many of them were also the first generation in their families to go to university as a student.
The panel discussion went on to take in credentialism and more fundamental questions about work. After all, we could reduce every one’s working hours and introduce universal basic income or even institute a post-scarcity economy if we really wanted to. I took Charlie as implying that the main purpose of ‘work’ (at least in recent decades) is to socially oppress the working class (understood in the wider sense of waged employees) by taking up as much of their time as possible and thereby restricting their capacities for adventure, agency and actualisation. The problem starts to seem more and more intractable the more I think about it … almost as though the only solution would be to completely overturn the existing political order and run society along completely different lines … On that note, It was great to hear Ken say that perhaps the best way to write about working-class heroes would be not just in relation to unions but to a socialist society and that he is currently working on a new novel doing exactly that.
There is still much I could say about this panel (whose reading recs can be found here); even about some of the asides, such as the role of merchants in SFF. And I think available space really does preclude my extended against-the-grain reading of Lord of the Rings arguing that Sam is the working-class hero of this exemplary work of paranoid proletarian modernism. So, I shall simply conclude by saying that it was very good and thanking all the participants. Indeed, thanks to all the participants on the panels I have discussed and all those on the programme as a whole.
In conclusion, the ‘Working Class Heroes’ and the two ‘Last Twenty Years’ panels were excellent thought-provoking discussions and conclusively demonstrated that SFF has moved beyond the 20th Century both in terms of the global and political context now being radically different and the way in which 20th-Century genre (whether comics or children’s lit) is no longer part of our present but now a form of myth/folk-lore embedded in the cultural fabric of society. This is a huge change with many potential ramifications which are not at all clear yet and I think content programmers of future cons might want to try and find ways of building on these panels. The thread running through all discussion and debate these days is what shape will the ‘new normal’ take after the pandemic (assuming it does end and that some stable social form takes place afterwards, which are both quite big assumptions). I think what needs to be pointed out here is that the pandemic is not some sort of Act of God or natural phenomenon but a social phenomenon that has been shaped by the political and ideological forces now operating. The circumstances under which we are having the discussion need to be part of the discussion.
Last year I reviewed the BSFA Award shortlists for Best Novel, Best Shorter Fiction and Best Non-Fiction (index here). This year I’ve been fitted with a limiter by the Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award that prohibits me from discussing any novels that are even vaguely SFF (or indeed any SFF works that are even vaguely novels) in public. I don’t have time to look at the shorter fiction (but will go to back to it because there is some interesting stuff there) and therefore I’m just going to look at the Best Non-Fiction Shortlist (all this year’s shortlists can be found here). I’m continuing my policy from last year of not ranking BSFA texts (I did rank the Clarke shortlist last year) but I will reveal which one I put in first place on the ballot.
Once again, the shortlisted works vary considerably in form. In this case between, on the one hand, Jo Walton’s short piece for Tor.Com and, on the other hand, Andrew Milner’s and J.R. Burgmann’s academic book with Liverpool University Press. While part of me would like to expand award categories to distinguish between books and shorter pieces, I realise that this isn’t a viable option for the BSFA, who are operating on limited resources. In any case, as with the Hugo Award for Best-Related Work, part of the fun is trying to guess what type of work will have caught the public mood in any particular year. I apologise in advance for the disparity in length of these reviews but there are always some topics I find I have more to say about (although in the event, I found I had a fair amount to say about all of them).
Jo Lindsay Walton, ‘Estranged Entrepreneurs and the Meaning of Money in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’ (Foundation 137, Winter 2020)
Walton was also short-listed last year for an essay, ‘Away Day: Star Trek and the Utopia of Merit’, which analysed work in the world of the Star Trek franchise, considered as a critical utopia, in order to think about the relationship between the slightly-jarring ideas of meritocracy and post-scarcity egalitarianism that both operate in that world. The conclusion of that essay is that ‘the Federation shows greater resemblance to some kind of techno-meritocracy, than to a system of egalitarian reciprocity’ and therefore although it represents some sort of utopia of merit, this seems to be directed towards a project of making hierarchy habitable. Therefore, the idea of a utopia of merit is a dangerous one: ‘Meritocracy is quite obviously an ideological instrument of the worst kinds of capitalism, and to attempt to make a space to think through a radical and redeemed version might just be totally naïve.’ I mention this because similar ideas are developed in ‘Estranged Entrepreuneurs and the Meaning of Money’ and readers might like to study both essays.
Walton focuses on Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003) (it is not necessary to have read the novel to appreciate the argument but you will want to read it by the time you have finished the essay), which postulates a mostly post-scarcity society in which money has been replaced by a ‘reputation currency’ called Whuffie, as described in the section of the essay extracted in the Awards booklet. Whuffie, Walton tells us, is not really that similar to the reputation metrics of social media; it can’t be simply stated as a score in the same way as one can enumerate their instagram followers. He cites Doctorow to the effect that Whuffie is ‘a score that a never-explained set of network services calculate by directly polling the minds of the people who know about you and your works, reducing their private views to a number’ (67). Furthermore, Whuffie varies according to how respected person B is by the people that person A respects, so any one individual will have different Whuffie scores from different people. The analysis here is partly directed at the idea of merit and Doctorow’s changing attitude to the possible redeemability of any idea of meritocracy (as evidenced by a comparison with the loose prequel Walkaway ) but Walton’s fundamental concern is with money and what exactly it is.
To this end, he begins the essay by discussing three major ways of thinking about money – chartalism (aka the state theory of money), the commodity theory of money, and the credit theory of money – and then (after an initial discussion of Whuffie) goes on to explain in more detail the ‘credit theory of money, the practicalities of money creation in the modern world, and the role entrepreneurship plays’ (68) by reference to an episode from Terry Pratchett’s Making Money (2007). This is great and works really well even if, like me, you are not entirely at home with economic and monetary theory. However, this analysis is also crucial to Walton’s argument that most of us are like Pratchett’s Moist van Lipwig in that when thinking about money we draw on ‘certain common-sense or folk-theoretic assumptions about what money is’ (70). One subset of these assumptions is concerned with the figure of the entrepreneur and our sense that they somehow make money. Returning to Whuffie, which clearly functions as something like money, Walton then analyses how it turns everybody into entrepreneurs and thereby ‘threatens the figure of the entrepreneur with obsolescence’ (75). In conclusion, he argues that speculative fiction (in this case by Doctorow and Pratchett) reveals how a folk-theoretic credit theory of money exists and operates:
Folk theories such as these, far more than their formal theoretic extrusions, or any vague notion of ‘trust’, are humming in the background when we use money. It is such folk theory that makes the use of money feel possible and even natural, and which may play some part in enabling money to ‘function’ and exercise its manifold agency. (77)
If it is not clear how can we understand money except through mediating figures, such as the entrepreneur, then the question we are left with is whether by multiplying and diversifying folk understandings ‘of what it means to be a human that uses money (or something like it) and perhaps can even create it’ we can move beyond our folk reverence for them (in effect, materially abolish the entrepreneur) and ‘significantly evolve our understanding of the nature of money’ (77).
This is a really first-rate essay, one that I will want to go back to after reading Doctorow’s novels. It’s also one I want to go forward with in the sense of helping generate new understandings (or, as Walton suggests, enriching existing marginalised undestandings) of making and using something like money. (Just to be clear, I have had no irreverent thoughts about REF scores and other metrics used in academia while reading this essay).
Jo Walton, ‘Books in Which No Bad Things Happen’ (Tor.Com, 20.03.20)
This article is available here. I can see why it has struck a chord because it is at once a musing on what ‘nothing bad’ means in the context of novels, which generally turn on plots, which generally turn on the resolution of conflicts of some sort, which means that ‘there’s almost certain to be something bad’; but it also opens up several ideas and invites readers to think about pretty much everything they’ve ever read and what they were looking for when they read it. Therefore, although it is a short article, it may well have catalysed hours of thought for many readers. There is also some very smart analysis here, such as the discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge as an example of how a utopia can be utopian without being naïve by having ‘the actual story be sad – the softball team loses, the boy doesn’t get the girl, the old man dies in a storm.’ This is a great example of how criticism doesn’t need to involve a lengthy theoretical thesis in order to make an insightful point (memo to self).
I particularly enjoyed this article because I read many of the texts/authors discussed, ranging from Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer to Martin Waddell and Barbara Frith’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? (aloud). Yes, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea is the scariest (too realistic!) of the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series and therefore it was far and away my least favourite and I’m not even sure I even read it more than once; in contrast to multiple readings of my favourites such as Peter Duck, Missie Lee, and Great Northern?, which while ostensibly more eventful and violent were not scary to me because they were so evidently fantasies (or, indeed, as Wikipedia suggests, because they are all metafictional – only writing this do I realise that this is where that lifelong interest began).
Obviously, people will best know for themselves what levels of badness they wish to avoid, and the takeaway for me was thinking about exactly where those boundaries lie for myself. We live in a society where ‘comfort reading’ is a term that is most often used as a put down (I’ve done it myself – I’ll think twice about doing that going forward) but I can remember being really upset by a counsellor once suggesting that I read SFF as a form of escapism. To paraphrase Tolkien, why wouldn’t you want to escape? At my lowest point last year, ill and fatigued and not knowing if I’d ever not be fatigued, I re-read part of The Fellowship of the Ring, just the first Book, and concentrated on the hobbits’ journey across the Shire and then on to Bree, via Tom Bombadil’s house. Those are the bits I used to skip read as a teenager (when I read LOTR two or three times a year every year) but now they are my favourite parts of the story. Ok, some bad stuff happens – there is more than ‘mild peril’, as the film warnings used to say – but, like Walton, I’ll settle for ‘everything all right at the end’. In other words, I can’t imagine ever wanting comfort enough that I’d just stay in the Shire but travelling to Bree and then waiting things out in the pub sounds like just the right level of adventure.
Francesca T Barbini, ed., Ties that Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction (Luna Press, kindle edition)
The first year that I went to Eastercon, I unwisely signed up to some sort of group email list and then watched in horror as it became utterly consumed by an extremely acrimonious ‘debate’ as to the suitability of the scheduling time for a session demonstrating bondage knots, which rapidly turned into an acrimonious ‘debate’ into the suitability of having a session demonstrating bondage knots. It nearly put me off completely. I didn’t realise people were going to be quite so Disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells and illiberal about such things. To be honest, I can’t even tie my own shoelaces so that they stay done up and therefore attendance would probably have done me some good and I’m always open to new things … at least, in theory. In the event, however, the only vaguely disturbing thing I encountered during the whole con was Graham Sleight gleefully tossing books aside as the ‘Not the Clarke Award’ panel ripped through the cream of British SF … but, I digress. The point is that both criticism and fandom – with exceptions of course – have often despite good intentions ended up reflecting the small ‘c’ conservative heteronormative social values that have dominated and continue to dominate (despite contestation) Britain. In this context, the advent of Luna Press (founded in 2015) and their ‘Academia Lunare’ series in particular – as with other instances of the blurring of fandom and academia – is a welcome development. Luna’s first call for papers in 2016 resulted in a great volume, Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I strongly recommend. Since then, there has been an annual volume in the series, the most recent of which is Ties that Bind.
It is very difficult to provide a fair review of a multi-authored essay collection without devoting at least a paragraph to each chapter and also discussing how these chapters speak to each other. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space or time to do this here. So therefore I’m going to make a few general comments and refer briefly to a couple of specific chapters just to give a flavour. Essays in the volume cover topics ranging from polyamory and queer robot love to asexuality and unrequited love – in fact, the extract in the Awards booklet includes the abstracts for all the chapters in the collection. This wide range is part of the attraction of the book and it’s also important to its implied overall position that SFF enables the exploration of variously new sexualities, genders and forms of relationship. For example, Josephine Maria Yanasak-Leszcynnski’s ‘Polyamory in Space: New Frontiers of Romantic Relationship in Science Fiction’ explores the importance of polyamory relationships to a range of texts – including Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Embassytown and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – almost as a means of discussing the future evolution of human sexuality as the species spreads through the galaxy. Therefore, the focus is different than if the texts were being read in terms of estranging their contexts of production (which for example certainly counts for some of Le Guin’s choices); but the overall effect is also to make us look at these books again in a new context.
Not all chapters function like this however. Christina Lake’s ‘Banners and Baby Factories: The Romantic Cost of Better Breeding’ brings Rose Macaulay’s What Not (1918, but recently reissued by Handheld Press) and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) into conjunction with Anne Charnock’s Clarke-Award-winning Dreams Before the Start of Time (2017), in order to show love as a form of individual resistance to programmes of rational reproduction designed to function for the good of the collective. This seems to be bringing the original context of writing forward into the twenty-first century and raises the question as to whether this debate has simply failed to move on since the interwar period. To be clear, I don’t think it is an either/or issue favouring the state on one hand and the individual or the individual couple on the other. But read in the context of this collection as a whole, it make me think that the various polyamory and in some cases queer modes of relationship, as discussed in Yanasak-Leszcynnski’s chapter (which also notes how such nonnormative societies often are represented as having various collective forms of childcare) present a way of moving beyond that apparent individual/collective opposition. Rather than set out some sort of blueprint here – feel free to imagine your own – I’ll just conclude this discussion by noting that the value of this collection (as with most good collections) lies in bringing these arguments and texts together so that the reader can find productive dissonances and creative synergies that would not otherwise occur to them. I’m a fan of essay collections. Long may the Academia Lunare series continue!
Paul Kincaid, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest (Gylphi, 235pp.)
(In the interests of full disclosure I should note that I read and commented on an early draft of this book).
There is a perception that Priest has been treading the same ground for a while. ‘Not another effing magician’ is one colourful expression of this view that sticks in my mind. Kincaid addresses this claim in his penultimate chapter, ‘Revisiting’, which deals mainly with The Islanders (2011) and subsequent works, but indirectly his entire book amounts to an elegant refutation of this suggestion that ‘in the end, [the various novels and stories] are really all the same’ (221). More specifically, he argues that despite recurring settings and thematic repetitions, ‘[Priest] has written no sequels, no series’ (221). Even so, and despite agreeing with Kincaid that Priest is very much not treading the same ground, I do think it makes sense to regard the Dream Archipelago fictions, which I have discussed in a review of The Gradual, as a sequence. In this respect, The Islanders is a key text that opened up a space for subsequent works such as The Gradual (2016) and The Evidence (2020) to constellate within. Although all of these novels can be read independently and in any order, there is undoubtedly much pleasure to be had from being receptive to the shared resonances and making cross-comparisons between them. Rather as appreciation of an artist’s work is enhanced by viewing their major works together in an exhibition, Priest’s oeuvre benefits from being examined collectively; and that is especially true of the Dream Archipelago sequence.
Showcasing Priest’s fiction in the manner of a ground-breaking, paradigm-setting exhibition is what Kincaid’s book does so successfully. Key to this success is his adoption of an innovative structure designed to unlock the ambivalences and ambiguities of Priest’s writing:
Even-number chapters will provide a more or less chronological account of his life and work, with readings of his novels and stories that, in the main, set them within the context of their times. Odd-numbered chapters, on the other hand, pursue a more thematic approach, exploring tropes that have a consistent and revealing place within Priest’s work, for example, islands, reality, doubles, and the arts [but not, alas, effing magicians]. (10)
The result of this relatively simple but very effective approach is that we encounter most of Priest’s works more than once in a variety of contexts, which reveal different and sometimes contradictory aspects of each text. Kincaid’s careful but uncluttered critical approach allows him to blend concise analysis with imaginative interpretation throughout; it would be invidious to pick out any one section as especially good. The sum of the whole is far more than just a set of good readings but, nonetheless, these are good readings and they provide their own pleasure to the reader on top of that gained from being reminded of Priest’s superb body of work. I’m going to shelve this book alongside Priest’s own novels.
In his conclusion – although tellingly the concluding chapter is not labelled as such but titled ‘Stories’ – Kincaid notes that the unstable realities explored in Priest’s work, which rely ‘heavily on issues of memory, amnesia and perception’ (208), can be related in part to ‘the defining event of his life … when, as a child, he was knocked off his bike and consequently suffered amnesia’ (207) and the subsequent realisation that both the world itself and our perception of it are unreliable. This makes me think that my own borderline obsession with Priest’s work in part stems from the fact that I too was knocked out as a child; in my case in my primary school playground. I didn’t suffer from amnesia but the shock of dislocation – coming to on the floor of the headmistress’s office floor (these days teachers wouldn’t take it upon themselves to move someone in that situation) – is embedded deeply in my memory, as was the subsequent ongoing sense that everything following this event was a dream from which I would subsequently awake (a constant perception persisting into early adulthood, which I wisely kept to myself). From my perspective, writers like Kafka and Dick are the true social realists and Priest, when I discovered his writing in my early 30s, was not only an immediate addition to this personal canon but also a potential key to unlocking the schizophrenic experience of postwar British history (an ‘unstable reality’ we all remain locked within as self-appointed Churchill avatar, Boris Johnson, enacts the ultimate island separation). Not a key in the sense that Priest’s metaphors can be read off literally, as though from the maps and glossaries which he disdains, but more through the subtle ways he attunes us to the malleability of the world.
The moral lesson of Priest’s fiction is not so much that there are dreams we need to beware of and reject (although this is always an important consideration) but that there is no alternative to working through dreams: there is no safety in embracing the ‘real world’ or ‘consensus reality’ and therefore we all need to take responsibility for finding our own way through the landscapes of the imaginary. For this reason, Kincaid is right to insist that Priest’s novels are not all the same: ‘There are repeated images – islands, twins, artists, [to which I can’t resist adding effing magicians] – and there are topics he returns to again and again – memory, reality, the way we make out own private world – but these are never the same twice’ (221). Every time we read Priest’s works, they are different, and every new Priest novel we read, reconfigures all the coordinates. Kincaid is not being falsely modest when he acknowledges that the world of Priest’s fiction is ‘unlikely to be exhausted by this study’ (222); but there is no question in my mind that The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest is and will remain the benchmark for critical engagement with this complex and uncanny world.
Adam Roberts, It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? (Elliott & Thompson, 202pp.)
As I’ve noted before, Roberts is so prolific that critics of the future will be asking questions. His excellent book on H.G. Wells, shortlisted last year, was part of a long-running academic series, It’s the End of the World – with its striking danger-coloured yellow and black cover design – seems very much angled at the general reader interested in something ‘thought-provoking’. I must admit I did initially feel sceptical when I read the contents page. Not because I had any doubts whatsoever as to Roberts’s ability to write intelligently and engagingly, but because I couldn’t see what he would have to add to such well-mined areas of debate as the threat of plagues and climate change etc. In fact, they are not even ‘debates’ because no body is ‘for’ the end of the world surely? But that turns out to be exactly Roberts’s point because surely if everyone really were against the end of the world, we’d have climate change under control, worldwide universal healthcare and not take quite so much aesthetic pleasure in representations of our own destruction at the hands of zombies, vampires and the four horsemen of the apocalypse? In fact, according to Roberts, it turns out that not only are we completely down with impending catastrophes, such as the inevitable heat death of the universe, but we’d like to get to them a bit sooner because we need to experience these things for ourselves in order to feel complete. We are, as the poet and critic William Empson once put it, ‘waiting for the end, boys’. This isn’t really a spoiler because Roberts’s position is implicit in his title’s allusion to a well-known REM song.
OK, I’m being a tad unfair here; the book did turn out to be an entertaining and, indeed, thought-provoking read even, or perhaps especially, when I profoundly disagreed with its points. In the end – which I didn’t actually have to wait all that long for because this is a fairly quickly-read 200 pages – I found Roberts’s conclusion to be surprisingly moving and elegiac even though it’s not a position I share. Well, perhaps it’s not so much that I’m entirely opposed but more that there are a few qualifications I wish to raise. The first of which is probably due to my own misplaced expectation that we would see some analysis of Fredric Jameson’s comment that ‘it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism’. Because my own answer to Roberts’s title question would be that it is the end of capitalism which we are really afraid of. It’s a system which governs and organises every phase of our lives: could there be anything more scary that it just grinding to a halt? How would we know the value of anything? I’m not just indulging in Marxist irony here. This is an actual problem for me as much as anyone else. My immediate reaction to the 2008 financial crisis was to think that of course Gordon Brown must save the economy or where will we be? It was only much later that it occurred to me that this was Labour falling into pretty much the same trap as they did in 1929 and that we should have taken the opportunity thrown up by the crisis of organising society completely differently. The Covid-19 pandemic has now thrown up another opportunity for us to introduce radical change but once again the entire resources of the British State have been thrown into keeping the current system running at all costs (and similar interventions are happening around the world).
This is not the analysis we get in the book. Instead, Roberts tells us that ‘in a way the greatest damage capitalism does, as a system, is to prioritise one thing – wealth – over everything else. The pursuit of money supersedes all the values we might say make us human, such as compassion, justice, empathy, honour.’ (69). From reading Jo Lindsay Walton’s essay on the ‘Meaning of Money’, we know it’s a bit more complicated than that and, in any case, this also misses the point that capitalism is a system of expropriation which operates by taking away the fruit of the labour of the majority and giving it to a minority; it can’t be made more just because it is based on a structural injustice. It’s not a system that everyone is directly complicit in; although we may well all be complicit with the folk theories humming in the background that enable money to function and be pursued. Furthermore, the ‘real issue’ with climate change is absolutely not that ‘people are no longer content to live primitive, subsistence-level lives’ (162). Climate change engineering is not controversial ‘because it suggests that we don’t need to engage in a systematic overhaul of our lives to address the underlying problem’ (164). (In fact, straining against the restrictions put on my mind, I seem to remember recently having read some sort of work of fiction that postulates making climate change engineering work precisely by systematically overhauling our lives and committing them to the end of overthrowing capitalism). Yes ‘what we should really be afraid of is our own apathy and inaction’ (167) but the problem of framing climate change as something ‘we’ are doing to ourselves that only ‘we’ can change is that it suggests our political system and the ruling interests that govern it are somehow not responsible. The reason we have bad government is not because we are lazy and selfish but a consequence of the reality that liberal democracy is dominated by powerful and vested capitalist interests which continually seek to undermine the collective good for their own ends. We don’t need to engage more in the system but to engage more against the system.
So those are a few qualifications I would make but some of Roberts’s arguments are also just a bit, well, off beam shall we say. For example, you’d think that the idea that videogames are the root of all evil has only ever had any currency in the pages of the Daily Mail. But according to Roberts:
The core logic of these games is that the world and everything in it is a means to an end, and you should always treat it like that. And it is this attitude, reified into a system of real-world belief, that is fuelling the ongoing climate catastrophe through which we are living. (175)
And there was me thinking that climate change was the product of more than two centuries of industrialisation. But the argument gets even weirder at this point as it draws on an anecdote told by Will Self about playing Skyrim with his teenage son, in which it transpires that the son has acquired an in-game wife who accumulates resources by running a store but he doesn’t know her name. Roberts comments: ‘video games are based on the idea that everything and everybody is a resource for you to exploit in the furtherance of your gameplay. It is good to have a wife, insofar as it leads to gameplay advantage’ (176). He then goes on to invoke both Immanuel Kant and Terry Pratchett as authorities for the moral point that people should always treat other people as ends in themselves. But surely the uncomfortable truth revealed by the anecdote (and here I will invoke the authority of Jane Austen on my side) is that marriage is a transactional relationship. To be sure, hopefully it is transacted for the mutual benefit of both parties but transactional it is nonetheless. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely through gameplay and education in game theory, gamification and – drawing on the types of discussions in Ties that Bind – different models of love and relationships, such as polyamory and asexuality, and concepts such as power exchange and consent, that there is some hope for the civilised development of human relations over the course of this century; because Kantian ethics, classical liberalism, liberal humanism and other such bourgeois constructs have probably taken us as far as they are going to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m eternally grateful for having grown up in a society shaped by the liberal reforms (rooted in such philosophical positions) of the Labour Government of my early years in the 1960s. But now that we find ourselves mired in the brutal end games of rapacious capitalism, white supremacy, toxic masculinity and other social pathologies, we need additional tools that respond to twenty-first century concerns.
The message I take from Roberts’s book is that what we really are afraid of is the death of the bourgeois, liberal subject. We don’t want it ‘to end in the chaotic, unresolved way the universe might impose upon us. And so we continue … [to search] … for a way to transform its finality into an experience we can finally comprehend’ (193). In other words, according to Roberts, better an end in horror (that we can comprehend as an end and therefore experience as meaningful) than horror without end, which would be like an endless video game or … the romcom, Groundhog Day: ‘Perhaps you think it is a charming and funny romantic comedy? You are wrong’ (154n). It is apparently ‘a masterpiece of supreme existential terror’ (154) because nothing could be worse than having to live the same day over and over again tens of thousands of times while learning to master jazz piano, ice sculpture and French. To which I say that Roberts is wrong on this point: most people do actually slog through more-or-less the same day tens of thousands of times for marginal gains. It’s not a matter of ‘existential revulsion’: rather it is a matter of taking on the existential challenge of ‘remembering, repeating and working-through’ until you come out the other side.
However, I’m still very grateful for having read It’s the End of the World because what it has made clear to me is that there is only one way to halt this whole anxiety fantasy about not being around for the end in order ‘to transform its finality into an experience we can finally comprehend’ (193). Why don’t we just pre-emptively short circuit the whole circular thought process by simply ending it right now? The bourgeois subject, I mean, and its related world view and ideological positions. As they say, there’s no time like the present and I think 2021 would make an excellent end date on the obituaries. Some sort of ceremony or performance would perhaps be appropriate; let no one say that I’m not prepared to mark the end of the bourgeois world with appropriate solemnity. But let’s do it soon because, I’m telling you, we have nothing to be afraid of … but everything to gain.
Andrew Milner and J.R. Burgmann, Science Fiction and Climate Change: A Sociological Approach (Liverpool University Press, 248pp.)
I’m a fan of the ‘Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies’ series and own a number of volumes in the series in paperback editions. However, this one hasn’t come out in paperback yet (nor have I been to any libraries lately) and therefore I must admit that I haven’t read all of this – only the extract in the BSFA Awards 2020 booklet. From the extract, I know it’s a book I want to consult further and I also learnt of a number of texts that I want to read (or listen to) such as Brian Wood’s The Massive and Anohni’s 2016 album Hopelessness (I’m really not sure how I missed this!). This extract, from Chapter 8, and the book as a whole, as far as I can gather, is set out as a critical survey and takes a ‘sociology of literature’ approach that I am sympathetic to. Interestingly, in the context of this shortlist, Milner and Burgmann discuss some of the same works as Roberts does, such as the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Their discussion of videogames echoes some of Roberts’s points, albeit in a more dispassionate register:
many entertainment games […] have made use of extreme environments as mise en scène, but these rarely connect to any explicitly Anthropocene narrative context: and even when they do, this is generally of little consequence to narrative or gameplay progression, which simply occurs in a climate-changed environment available for exploration and play.
They go on to suggest that publishers, as opposed to game developers, have tended to tread cautiously in introducing ‘cli-fi’ themes because of ‘how aggressively far-right subcultures have attempted to co-opt and influence the gaming communities’. It’s true that gaming has been one of the fronts in the culture war but I suspect this reluctance on the part of publishers is not entirely down to fear of the right (who as far as I know are not completely dominant in this field) but also connected to the interests of capital. Drawing on the arguments of Alfie Brown in The Playstation Dreamworld (see an article in wrote for the Guardian here), Milner and Burgmann conclude that ‘gaming is now in desperate need of formal innovations analogous to those of literary modernism in the early twentieth century’. This is an interesting argument that, on the one hand, is more productive than simply criticising gaming for fostering an extractive mindset, but, otoh, raises questions as to whether modernism – which after all was nothing if not entrepreneurial in the way that it established itself – is still the answer (hmmm, I kind of feel that I’ve read something fictional that touches on this recently but something prevents me from remembering what it is). My qualification to this argument would be to say that the place to look for the twenty-first century equivalent of the literary modernism of the early twentieth century is in feminist SFF … but that is a whole other argument that I will return to at some point in the future.
Thoughts: Last year I seem to have confidently opined that the list told us something significant about a shift in critical consciousness within our current historical juncture. Last year was a long time ago. This year I’m just happy to still be here and type whatever comes into my head. Hopefully, a few connections have emerged between the lines. This is a good list; I have enjoyed reading all the shortlisted works (which do an excellent job of showcasing the various merits of the formats that they are produced in). I won’t be unhappy if any of them win but, not unsurprisingly to those who know my interests, I have given my first preference to The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest because, as John Paul-Sartre would say were he still with us, ‘the alarm clock rings for you’ and Priest is one of out best guides as to how ‘remember, repeat and work-through’ the existential terror forced upon us by the need to choose our course of action every morning when that bell tolls; and Kincaid is an excellent guide to Priest’s work.
[Edit: And the winner is … Adam Roberts, It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of?]
This is the third instalment – and again it is very much a few notes yet to be formed into a coherent argument – in an occasional series, which began with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as SF Text and continued with Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm as SF Text. The original 1936 edition of In the Second Year is available via the Internet Archive but I’m here quoting from the 2004 Trent Editions reprint, edited and with an introduction by Stan Smith.
‘I was overcome by the strangeness and intolerable grief and pity of living in a Europe in decay. It has happened to Europe before but never to me’ (31). Thus reflects Andy Hillier, the viewpoint narrator of In the Second Year, after contemplating the inevitable prospect of a war in which London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna are all bombed, leaving an aftermath of rubble and workmen burning canvasses from the National Gallery in order to brew their tea. This inconsolable feeling of loss and unremitting bleakness haunts the novel and in a strange way seems better to express the devastation of the late 1930s and early 1940s than much of the British fiction from the war years and afterwards. Any sense of the darkness at the heart of European history tends to remain suppressed in the British consciousness; it is one of the markers of the exceptionalism which has maintained a culture of British insularity. Ironically, Brexit has given rise to this haunting sense of decay once more; it has taken lockdown on a plague island that has cut itself off from its main trade links to make us really experience continental melancholy.
The title of this blog post is a bit misleading because unlike Woolf’s or Gibbons’s texts, there is no need to ‘read’ In the Second Year as an SF text. It is an SF text or, more precisely, an alternate history that imagines a fascist Britain in 1941, in which a second General Strike in 1936 – perhaps like the one envisioned in John Sommerfield’s May Day (1936) – had given cause for Frank Hillier (who is Andy’s second cousin), the leader of the National State Party, to form a home defence corps led by Richard Sacker (who is Andy’s brother-in-law). The successful containment of the strike gives the NSP the public legitimacy to eventually take power in the ‘revolution’ of 1940. The events of the novel revolve around the inevitable downfall of the romantic Sacker, who is marginalised and then executed by the banal Hillier. This is a fictionalised version of the real-life ‘Night of the Long Knives’, which took place in Nazi Germany in 1934, when Hitler brutally rid himself of former ally, Ernst Röhm.
Unlike Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937) – or later postwar fictions such as Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978) – In the Second Year does not imagine Nazi Germany defeating Britain and establishing a totalitarian regime but instead investigates how an indigenous English fascism might take shape. In this respect, it can be compared with novels such as Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), Clemence Dane’s [Winifred Ashton’s] The Arrogant History of White Ben (1939), and Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome (1941) (see Taylor 2021 for a detailed analysis of the last two works mentioned here and In the Second Year). It’s notable that the majority of these writers concerned with fascism in England are women and this reflects a common perception (among women at least) that fascism constituted a particular threat to them, as expressed in non-fiction works of the period such as Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938) and Ethel Mannin’s Women and the Revolution (1938). Therefore, while these books (with the exception of We Have Been Warned) do not represent milestones in the imagination of a feminist future of the type that I suggested Woolf was calling for in A Room of One’s Own, they are nonetheless products of the fight for that future.
* * * * * * * *
Margaret Storm Jameson (1891-1986) was born in Whitby, Yorkshire, into a family of shipbuilders and merchant seafarers. She belonged to the generation of ‘Professional Women Writers’ – including also Mitchison, Gibbons, Burdekin, Winifred Holtby, Vera Brittain, Rose Macaulay, Sylvia Townsend-Warner and Stella Gibbons – ‘who substantially shaped intellectual culture across the [1930s]’ (Ewins 59). The fact she came from ‘the North’ is relevant to In the Second Year, in which the contrast between the north and south of England (as in George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier ) forms an important context. The North is portrayed as less duplicitous and more honest than the South. In one of Andy’s characteristic ostensibly-factual but almost-adulatory accounts of Richard’s behaviour, we get a sense of the North as resistant to democracy and socialism: a timeless fairy-tale feudal world of its own:
That evening the fishermen and some others came up from the port, with a band and flags, as the crown of their national rejoicing, to welcome Richard. They gathered on the lawn and played the inevitable air at funeral pace […] Richard came out and roared at them as if he were in a temper, while the great fools stood grinning and nudging each other in delight. He spread his arms out and invited them into the kitchen to drink beer.
He drank it with them. There were two fishwives had come up with their men, harridans who would have the skin off you if you vexed them, as strong as men and more merciless and sharper-tongued. Calling Richard ‘bairn’ and ‘honey,’ they hung on his arms. He paraded them down the length of the kitchen, one on either arm, and at the end kissed a brown wrinkled cheek of each. They screeched with joy […]
These men and women liked and understood Richard. They admired his violence and hot temper. Grinning they recalled the day when he had kicked one of them from top to bottom of a flight of steps for a simple impudent speech. The man broke his leg and owned afterwards he had deserved it. Yon’s the sort of man he is, they said openly. He’s a rare one to fight, is Sacker.
This is the way it went with them. Scarcely one would think of giving Richard his title, or taking a cap off to him. They stood in front of him with thumbs in the band of their sea trousers, and grinned in his face. But they knew he was superior to them. The boldest did not deny it for a moment, nor feel that it was aught but right he should be. They had the differences of class in their bones, and yet their bones would not bend before any man’s, not if he was King. (109-110)
This is a very seductive passage and yet Andy is not so seduced that he doesn’t see in Richard’s open simplicity his incompatibility with Hillier – this is the point in the novel when we realise we are reading a tragedy. Andy is also aware that these people are not particularly interested in socialism or even democracy. The question remains what can we do with these social formations: can they be salvaged for utopia or are they irredeemably reactionary? And what do we do with the Richard Sackers of the world? I’m still thinking about these questions but the first time I read that passage I thought about Boris Johnson courting the northern voters of the former ‘Red Wall’ seats.
However, I’ve also thought about Sacker in relation to Duke Aubrey of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). Maybe In the Second Year is more fantasy than SF? Earlier in the novel we learn that Sacker ‘attracted women, and more especially intelligent women, very young men, and men who had the worser part of women in them’ (53). There is a curious sexual politics at work here: the England depicted has already reverted to a stage before emancipated modern womanhood. In the end, ‘the irredeemably liberal’ Andy escapes from this savage English Faerie back onto the cold hillside, but, painfully aware that the roots of his (classical) liberalism are fatally embedded in the decaying old England, he also realises ‘I could neither imagine myself living in a new way, nor wish it. I have lost both worlds […]’ (215).
Kristin Ewins ‘Professional Women Writers’ in Benjamin Kohlmann and Matthew Taunton, eds, A History of 1930s British Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019: 58-71.
Storm Jameson, In the Second Year. Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2004 .
Elinor Taylor, ‘Spectres of English Fascism: History, Aesthetics and Cultural Critique’ in Nick Hubble, Luke Seaber and Elinor Taylor, eds, The 1930s: A Decade of Modern British Fiction. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021: 59-89.
This is a slightly longer version of a review that first appeared in Vector 284 (Summer 2016), p.45.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury, 2015)
Reviewed byNick Hubble
When the first thing we learn about Home Office telegraphist Thaniel Steepleton, the main protagonist of Natasha Pulley’s assured debut novel The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street, is that he keeps a packet of Lipton’s tea at the back of his desk drawer, we already have good reason to believe that he will prove to be sensitive and different. In fact, as we soon discover, he only works as a telegraphist to support his widowed sister’s children and is also a gifted composer and pianist with perfect pitch, who can perceive sound as colour.
When Thaniel gets home to his boarding house after his opening solitary night shift with the telegraphs, he finds that someone has broken into his room and left him an ornate golden pocket watch that shines with the colour of a human voice. Despite the watch initially appearing not to work or to be openable, it eventually starts to keep time of its own accord and some months later produces an ear-splitting alarm that causes Thaniel to leave the pub is he in and thus avoid the blast from a bomb set off moments later across the street in Scotland Yard. This bombing is an actual historical event that took place on 30 May 1884; part of the Fenian campaign that forms a backdrop to the novel. Pulley’s deft interweaving of history and fiction allows her to set up several different levels of tension ranging from the initial plot-driving suspicion that the maker of the watch is also the maker of the timing devices for the bombs, through a wider scientific discourse of cause, effect and probability, and on to more philosophical questions concerning the nature of agency within a deterministic universe.
The eponymous watchmaker is revealed to be a Japanese man, Keita Mori, whose shop and attached house turn out to be an almost-magical space of intricate clockwork devices. When Thaniel moves into Mori’s spare bedroom in order to spy on him for the police, he soon finds himself utterly charmed and drawn towards the other man. What gives the novel’s gentle mixture of mystery and romance real bite, however, is the involvement of the theoretical physicist, Grace Cooper, who Thaniel literary bumps into due to an unlikely set of circumstances including a win at a roulette table. Grace is the only person capable of working out the full implications of Mori’s ability to manipulate probability and she urgently warns Thaniel that the older man is capable of reducing his life to the level of a clockwork automaton.
While Mori’s ingenious machinery is wonderful, especially his clockwork octopus, a key part of the pleasure of Pulley’s narrative is the way that it applies its queer steampunk sensibility to the real mechanical marvels of the late Victorian period such as the telegraph system and the London Underground. Reading The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street makes it difficult to associate the whir of clockwork with anything other than the steady uncoiling of the springs of desire and the collapse of convention. By the end of the novel, even the hiss of steam has taken on a golden hue and Thaniel has finally found someone special to share his tea with.
I had a first go at writing about Fair Rebel for the ‘Shadow Clarke’ project in 2017, as the second half of a piece in which I reflected that the boundary between literary sf and genre sf is not as straightforwardly binary as some might expect (which boundaries are!?!). I further argued that genre sf is central to our idea of what it is to be modern (hence it was entirely appropriate for Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time to win the Clarke Award in 2016). This set up my review of Fair Rebel, which I had selected as one of my shadow choices that would be worthy of being shortlisted for the Clarke in 2017. I went on to argue that Fair Rebel, despite its genre content, was ‘as much concerned with the understanding of what it is to be modern as any other novel published in 2016’. Looking back I think that stands up although I immediately forgot about it until I just reread the piece. I’m now thinking that I need to include Fair Rebel and this argument in an essay I am writing about the fiction of the 2010s. Following the Sharke piece, I wrote a different (and longer) version of the review, which appeared in BSFA Review 2 (Winter 2017). This is what is reproduced below in a slightly revised version.
Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston (Gollancz, 2016)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
Following a six-year gap, during which Swainston at one point broke off her contract with Gollancz in order to work as a teacher, Fair Rebel marks the fifth full-length instalment in the Castle sequence. It follows on in order from the first three novels, The Year of Our War (2004), No Present Like Time (2005), and The Modern World (2007), being set some fifteen years after the events of the latter. As with all the previous Castle fiction, the main viewpoint protagonist is Jant, the flying messenger of the Emperor of the Fourlands (the fourth novel, Above the Snowline (2010) and a short story ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ (2013) detail episodes from his past). Jant’s arch and playful style of narration can be seen in the way that Swainston rather deftly deals with the issue of filling in readers unfamiliar with the series by having him demonstrate how a dialogue with ‘new listeners’ might be rather tiresome before concluding:
You see? We could go on all day. The only solution I can think of, is to ask you guys who’ve already heard it to let your mind wander for a bit. There’s a lot you can be doing – putting an edge on your sword, polishing your horse – while I place the facts before the newcomers.
The basic premise of the sequence is straightforward: the Fourlands are threatened by hordes of huge voracious insects which eat anything and everything in their path. In order to prevent the insects overrunning his domains, the Emperor has sought out the greatest champions of all disciplines and had them compete to find the best in each category, before rewarding them with immortality as part of his ‘Circle’ and tasking them to fight the insects. However, these heroes, the Eszai, also have to defend their positions from challengers, who by victory over them can take their position and immortality. While the aristocratic Saker is the best archer in the Fourlands and has (until recently) been in the Circle continuously from its formation nearly 1500 years before the time of Fair Rebel, Jant is currently still under 250 having grown up first in the Darkling mountains and then on the streets of the city of Hacilith before taking the role of the Circle’s messenger, by defeating the incumbent, at the age of 23.
Viewed purely in the context of this not untypical setup for a fantasy series, the impact and rapturous reception enjoyed by The Year of Our War on its first publication might appear surprising to those unaware of it. While it helped that the novel was published in an elegant hardback edition, with a gorgeous cover including a prominently displayed endorsement from China Miéville (and only cost £9.99), it was Swainston’s writing and vision which swept readers and reviewers away. As Farah Mendlesohn proclaimed, reviewing the novel for Vector 236, ‘while the whole of our critical world seems to be discussing the merging of genres, access to the mainstream, playing with the borders of fantasy, along comes The Year of Our War, a book which is about as solidly grounded in genre as it is possible to get, and which, far from being hackneyed, is breathtaking.’ BSFA members who bought the book on the strength of Mendlesohn’s review – as I did – were rewarded with a novel that combined action and sweep with emotional tenderness and moral complexity. Above all, Swainston’s prose was characterised by a wit which encompassed a full range from an old-fashioned Austen-like irony to a very present-day louche knowingness. For the first time since childhood, I immediately reread a novel upon finishing it.
As suggested by the Miéville blurb, Swainston was associated with the New Weird at the time. There are certainly weird aspects to The Year of Our War, which are mostly related to Jant’s addiction to injecting scolopendium, or ‘cat’ as it is colloquially referred to, and his experiences in the multidimensional ‘shift’ that large doses of the drug transport him to. Furthermore, the novel was clearly political albeit, as Mendlesohn described, ‘in the manner of Olympus, rather than the street politics of London’. However, with each successor volume it became clearer that the sequence was moving away from baroque weirdness and deeper into its richly imagined secondary world. Reviewing Above the Snowline for Strange Horizons in 2010, Niall Harrison argued that retrospectively Swainston might be seen alongside Joe Abercrombie and others as at the forefront of the ongoing reinvigoration of core commercial fantasy. What characterises such work according to Harrison is the way in which it challenges ‘the conventionally historicised nature of fantasy settings [by] juxtaposing an idiom or thought pattern we think of as modern with a social order we think of as hundreds of years out of date.’ In this respect, Swainston and Abercrombie are successors of Naomi Mitchison who began her long writing career a century ago by employing the modern idiom of the 1920s in her historical fiction set in classical antiquity.
Today, following the success of Game of Thrones, the television serialisation of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, which certainly mixes modern thought (especially in the Lannister siblings) with solidly medieval trappings, such fantasy is arguably the dominant form of fictional entertainment in the World. There should be a huge potential market for Swainston’s series and yet, far from the glorious debut of The Year of Our War, there has been little fanfare for the appearance of Fair Rebel in a somewhat flimsy trade paperback edition costing a whopping £18.99. The sombre black-and-white cover resembles a funeral notice and rather undermines the potentially upbeat connotations of the title. To be fair, this tone is in some respects appropriate to the content of the novel – as discussed below – but even so I can’t help feeling Gollancz should have made more of an effort. A writer like Swainston comes along once in a blue moon; of all the British genre SFF writers to emerge in the current century so far, she’s the one that I would put money on as still being read in the next. This is because, as Harrison points out, Swainston asks us ‘to consider what we mean by “modern” … more forcefully than just about anyone else’.
The epigraph to The Modern World is taken from Chaucer: ‘He let go the things of yesterday/ And took the modern world’s more spacious way’. What would it entail to take such a spacious way? That novel ends with Saker voluntarily giving up his immortality by engineering defeat to his own daughter in a challenge and choosing instead to take worldly power in Awia, the largest of the Fourlands. The staggering sense of human agency, not to mention strategic genius, revealed in this bold move is somewhat undercut by Jant’s reflection that Saker is simultaneously controlling his wayward daughter while enacting his own teenage rebellion against the Emperor. But regardless of whether this is a profound or rather more mundane move, the clock starts ticking in what had seemed a timeless, feudal state. The significant temporal context of Fair Rebel is not the fifteen short centuries of ageless order since the founding of the Circle but the fifteen long years of modernity inaugurated by Saker. On the surface, the social system is identical to that which readers have grown familiar with from the first three volumes in the sequence but inside it has been hollowed out in a manner that is simply inconceivable to the Eszai and is now at the point of implosion. The same kind of unexpected political upheaval that rocked the UK and the USA in 2016 is about to turn the Fourlands upside down in the space of a single summer.
As the title Fair Rebel suggests, the discontent in the story is being led by a woman. In fact, there are two women leaders: the aristocratic Swallow – formerly romantically but chastely entangled with Saker – who has been repeatedly refused immortality as the best musician in the Fourlands, and the lower-class Connell, radicalised through exploitation and then caught up in Swallow’s plots. The inclusion of found texts – letters, newspaper articles – has always been a distinctive feature of the Castle series and here Swainston uses this device to allow both Swallow and Connell to tell the key parts of their own stories, which illustrate how the recent onset of modernity in the Fourlands has changed the way people think and let loose nascent forms of feminism and class consciousness. Swallow’s bitter criticisms of the behaviour of male Eszai expose some of the newly-visible patriarchal limitations of feudal organisation: ‘He’s like any man. I can’t get to grips with them – they always seem overly loud and self-important, but they have no depth at all’. However, the manner in which the novel ends with Connell in hiding reflecting on her realisation that Swallow’s ego was as big as any of the immortals suggests that Swainston’s own sympathies are with the marginalised and dispossessed. It is Connell, acutely aware of how the slightest misfortune can send poor people like herself into a spiral descent from which there is no escape, who expresses the most perceptive piece of social analysis in the novel:
This country is just people stuck in different echelons, different classes, unable to escape them no matter how hard they struggle, staring at each others’ lives in bewilderment and disbelief. When they spread their wings, all they can manage is to fly round and round in a cramped cage.
Of course, no one flies round and round as much as Jant, who for all his efforts rarely manages to be more than the participant observer of the collapse of the hierarchical society to which he somewhat awkwardly belongs. Although he owes his own success and extended life to the Emperor’s system, his upbringing and youthful experiences of the gangs of Hacilith place him well to appreciate both what it is like to be excluded by that system and the anger that this exclusion engenders. While his loyalties remain with his friends, his understanding reaches across the various divides at play in the Fourlands. Alone among the Eszai, he understands the motivation of those like Connell and the possibilities for social revolution that she represents. The rest are incredulous as rebels attack the Castle itself and even release insects within its grounds. Amidst these spectacular set-piece scenes, constructed with Swainston’s distinctive blend of elegant description and visceral action, the question that begins to arise, as the Circle successively breaks – which happens when one of the immortals dies – and reforms with ever more difficulty, is how long will Jant maintain his loyalty to the Emperor and the feudal order?
Modernity waits for no one, winged hero or not. From what we know of the forthcoming sixth volume in the series, The Savant and the Snake, and the limited-edition short story Aftermath (2016), set in the days after the events at the close of Fair Rebel, the financial implications of running a perpetual wartime economy in the Fourlands are about to become spectacularly manifest. The point is clearly coming when the imperial social order is going to be torn apart by the conflicting demands of aristocrats such as Saker to recover past feudal glories from the insects and of the peasantry such as Connell, who remains at large at the end of Fair Rebel, to be released from lives of poverty and servitude. Much as we have no way of knowing how the similarly poised forces currently pulling post-referendum Britain apart are going to play out, our only means of finding out the fate of the Fourlands will be to fly round and round like Jant: striving to be on the side of the angels while all the time hoping that the inevitable come down isn’t too hard.
[This follows on from my previous post on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as SF Text but this is really thoughts rather than a fully fledged argument!]
Cold Comfort Farm is set maybe 15-20 years after its date of publication (1932). One character (Claud) has participated in the Anglo-Nicaraguan Wars of 1946 (Gibbons 2006: 160) and there is a telephone conversation in which Flora is visible to Claud via the ‘television dial’ at his home (Flora is in a public phone box and so doesn’t have the option of seeing the other end of the line; see Gibbons 2006: 128). (Compare Woolf in The Years : ‘One of these days d’you think we’ll be able to see things at the end of the telephone?’ ).
One way of thinking about this near-future setting would be to consider Cold Comfort Farm as a work sitting on that line of development imagined by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own as stretching forward a hundred years from Life’s Adventure by Mary Carmichael (a fictional version of Marie Stopes’s Love’s Creation – A Novel ) to a point when a genuine women’s writing will be the norm. Certainly, Cold Comfort Farm carries some of the markers that Woolf refers to. For example, it has conversations between women characters that don’t revolve around men. Furthermore, it specifically refers to both Jane Austen and Emily Brontë, who, according to Woolf, were the only the two women writers to have written ‘as women write, not as men write’ (Woolf 2000: 68). While Jane Austen provides a model for Gibbons to the extent that Flora puts things to rights in the manner of Fanny Price (of Mansfield Park, which is the source of the novel’s epigraph); Emily’s Wuthering Heights is both satirised (especially in the character of Adam) and used as evidence of the pressures on women writers because of Mr Mybug’s contention that ‘No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff …’ (p. 102). As Flora has predicted, Mybug is writing a book to prove that Branwell wrote his sisters’ novels.
Flora also has to cope with her cousin Seth and his attitude of not letting women eat him: ‘I eats them instead’ (p. 82). Both Seth and Mybug in rather different ways represent Woolf’s point that men’s sense of self is often dependent on their assumption of superiority over women, which means that men do not want women to write great books or tell the truth about existence:
For is she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and dinner at least twice the size he really is? [….] The looking-glass vision is of supreme importance because it charges the vitality; it stimulates the nervous system. Take it away and man may die, like the drug fiend deprived of his cocaine. (Woolf 2000: 32-3)
Although Gibbons deals with these topics humorously, there is still obvious criticism of men’s behaviour in the book. As Faye Hammill notes: ‘Gibbons’s objection to male intellectuals, and their undervaluing of female intelligence, was strikingly justified by some of the reviews of Cold Comfort Farm. Several reviewers expressed incredulity that a mere journalist, and a woman at that, could have produced such an accomplished work, and one even speculated that Stella Gibbons was a pen-name of Evelyn Waugh’ (Hammill 2001: 842).
Of course, Cold Comfort Farm is not a radical feminist text in the same way that A Room of One’s Own is. As Hammill points out, Flora appeals not to the committed feminist but to the ordinary woman reader and ‘the ground of her appeal is the pleasure that a woman with a degree of autonomy can gain for herself’ (846). None of her advice (e.g. to Elfine on how to perform femininity – see Gibbons 2006: 129-130) ‘betokens a politically radical woman, yet Flora’s seizing of power within the Starkadder family presents a clear image of female ascendance and defiance that exists in a curious tension with her emphasis on conventional feminine behaviour’ (Hammill 2001: 846).
So where does Cold Comfort Farm sit on that Woolfian century stretching from 1928 to 2028? It’s definitely a step forward in some respects from Mary Carmichael because it imagines a world where modern women can be an updated Jane Austen heroine and have agency (and enjoy themselves) by performing a particular kind of modernised conventional femininity, while being the wittiest person in the room.
Unsurprisingly, the novel was (and has remained) incredibly popular. It was reissued as a Penguin paperback in 1938. As the English Studies Group of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies noted in 1979, Gibbons distances herself (in the foreword) from pretensions to literary status. In this respect the novel might be seen as ‘middlebrow’ in the terminology of the period. Rather than map ‘lowbrow’, ‘middlebrow’ and ‘highbrow’ onto social class, one way of thinking about these categories is how the text positions (or ‘interpellates’) the reader. So, while a ‘lowbrow’ text might position a reader ‘in such a way as to identify with one or more characters’, a ‘middlebrow’ text situates the reader ‘in the position of the author or narrative “point of view”’; and a ‘highbrow’ ‘reader [or literary studies academic or postgrad student] “sees” the text from the position of literary ideology’ (1979: 13-4). Elements of all three of these are present in Cold Comfort Farm, but readers are mainly situated in terms of the narrative point of view albeit, as the ESG point out, with a significant disruption to that process:
The text interpellates its reader, as we saw in the author’s foreword, as the ordinary person, the consciously non-literary, knowledgeable, responsible general reader. This reader and the author are one, part of the same community of common sense. [. . . .] [However] [t]here are moments, like the scene of ‘ordinary human enjoyment’ at the wedding, when the gender of the ordinary person is seen as unimportant. Everyone participates equally in the life of the community. This appeal, to an ungendered ideal of ‘citizenship’, is distinctively middlebrow. Elsewhere in the text, though, the interpellated reader is importantly female: when male sexuality is ridiculed, when Flora rescues the female victims of rural idiocy, when she wryly foresees Mybug’s claim that Wuthering Heights was written by Branwell Brontë. (1979: 16)
The ESG go on to discuss the struggle between Flora and Aunt Ada as ‘a conflict between two forms of female power’ (1979: 16) – the power of the older woman in the traditional extended family and the power of the newly independent woman. This is illustrated by Aunt Ada’s second-person stream of consciousness in Chapter 10 (Gibbons 2006: 113-115) which in practice works as an address to the reader, who here is unequivocally positioned as female: ‘an appeal to shared female experience: “something nasty in the woodshed”, the problem that has no name’ (1979: 18). The problem is, as Woolf pointed out in ‘Professions for Women’ (1931), that even if a woman has the benefits of modern independence and the material resources signified by ‘a room of her own’ it is still not acceptable to write ‘the truth about [her] own experiences as a body’ (Woolf 2000: 360). A message that was born out by the critical drubbing and damage to her reputation undergone by Naomi Mitchison after publishing We Have Been Warned (1935).
Finally, the ESG conclude:
Cold Comfort Farm never achieves a closed, coherent interpellation of the reader-writer as sensible ordinary person. The equivocality of the text exposes the contradictory situation of the female reader-writer, unable to read-write either highbrow, lowbrow or middlebrow fiction, because no kind can carry the assertion of her distinctive and in many ways oppositional femaleness. (1979: 19)
While, on the whole, we no longer think of texts as ideology machines in quite the same way as they did in the late 1970s this does, I think, provide a useful summing up of how the novel functions. It is one way of expressing how Cold Comfort Farm is not entirely modern, even for 1932. In terms of the Woolf SF continuum, it might be considered a transitional text because despite its understanding of the modern world (which still seems fresh today), it’s clearly written with the knowledge that it has to abide by a number of traditional conventions (specifically not directly writing about women’s experiences as bodies) in order to be considered safe for society. Therefore, it is not as radical or transgressive as contemporary fictions by other women writers such as Mitchison or Ethel Mannin and, as a consequence, it doesn’t have exactly the same kind of troubled reception history (although as Hammill pointed out in 2001, it wasn’t really written about or considered canonical in any way up until that point in time). Nevertheless, struggles are fought on many fronts and Cold Comfort Farm implicitly holds out a future for women that is different from the reality of the early 1930s and can thus be seen as part of that process Woolf identified of women working for 2028.
English Studies Group, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Birmingham. ‘Thinking the Thirties’. Francis Barker et al (eds), 1936: The Sociology of Literature, Volume 2 – Practices of Literature and Politics. Colchester: University of Essex, 1979: 1-20.
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006 .
Faye Hammill, ‘Cold Comfort Farm, D.H. Lawrence, and English Literary Culture Between the Wars’, Modern Fiction Studies, Winter 2001; 47, 4: 831-854.
Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2000.
Virginia Woolf. The Years. Hammersmith: Grafton, 1977 .