Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination

41lvkovsv3l-_sx331_bo1204203200_The monochrome cover of Dark Horizons is very dark, and its subtitle is Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, but the agenda of editors Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan in this collection of essays is as much about utopia as dystopia. Moreover, there’s a recurring understanding, as I have long believed, that the utopian impulse needs to be concerned more with processes of change than with template visions for a better world.

From the real-life totalitarian ‘utopias’ of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union emerged an anti-utopian animus, which may have had a compassionate humanist motivation in such classic texts as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but has since the 1980s been coopted by conservative, capitalist interests that seek to rule out of court any possibility of utopian progress. In science fiction we find this reflected by the displacement of utopian thought experiments by the rise of cyberpunk and other dystopian visions of the future extrapolated from the alarming trends of our time.

A pivotal discrimination by the contributors to Dark Horizons is between dystopias that are by default anti-utopian, in that the dark future always already exists as a conflict-laden setting for exciting amoral storylines, and ‘critical dystopias’ in which a utopian impulse is embedded as some kind of vector of resistance and the protagonist’s desire for change is left unresolved at the end to allow us the possibility of hope. It’s noticeable that many of the exemplar texts of this latter form are by women, for example Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling, Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass, and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis.

That the fake capitalist utopia of the free market is not the end of history is even more evident today than it was in 2003 when Dark Horizons was published. Several of the contributors to this book – who include such luminary critics as Darko Suvin and Phillip E. Wegner – suggest we may be entering a time when the creative possibilities of the critical dystopia are exhausted and there will be new impetus towards the writing of ‘critical utopias’ in which the pathways of positive change may be explored. I hope they’re right. The novels of Kim Stanley Robinson are rightly noted as the vanguard of such a development.

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Myths and Legends of the Pacific

Generated by pixel @ 2018-06-13T16:10:03.112717When it comes to myths and legends of Australasia, A.W. Reed is a ubiquitous author – and equally ubiquitous as his own publisher. Myths and Legends of the Pacific extends his range across the whole of the Pacific, covering nearly all the main archipelagos of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. Conspicuous by its absence, as usual, is New Caledonia.

Although a Hawaiian story is included about the fire goddess Pele, and a Maori one about the Sky Father and Earth Mother, and a Tongan one about the culture hero Maui, most of the 23 stories in this collection have the feel of folktales. They are localised tales about ordinary women and men – and animals – to whom extraordinary things happen. They are lively and entertaining and could be used by storytellers with little need for adaptation. Other than the name of the archipelago each story comes from, the book provides no apparatus of sources. No doubt, through Reed’s redaction, some of the tales’ cultural specificities have been smoothed away to make them palatable to young Western readers and listeners.

You could weigh into the politics of appropriation about that if you wanted, but they are good stories nevertheless, and they convey a sense of the commonalities of island life across the vastness of the Pacific: canoes, palm trees, birds, fishing, thatched buildings and woven mats, the sea and its creatures and shores provide the essential building blocks of plot. The human communities are inseparable from the natural world they inhabit. In one way or another, all of these tales are ecological stories. Yet it’s the truly extraordinary, the supernatural, that gives so many of them their frisson of interest – whether it’s a giant bird or reptile, redolent of vanished species, or the recurring legend of ‘fairy’ people who were there before the islands’ present inhabitants, or motifs of miraculous transformation or communication between human beings and animals or the elements or otherworldly beings.

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Mary Magdalene, the Movie

mm11Mary Magdalene has always seemed special. It’s difficult to fit together the different resurrection appearances of Jesus into a coherent narrative, but one thing is clear in the Easter story as I received it: Mary Magdalene is the first person to see him.

The new film Mary Magdalene by Garth Davis makes her even more special. Sometimes it sticks too zealously to the screenwriting doctrine of the ‘hero’, the single protagonist who drives the story; hence the dropping of John the Beloved as a significant character, leaving a simple binary conflict at the end between Mary and Peter. But I loved the way Mary is played (by Rooney Mara) as possessed from the start by an intense longing for God. Her love for Jesus as a man, her loving closeness to him, is inseparable from her being the first of his disciples to comprehend the nature of his calling.

One gets from the New Testament an idea that the Holy Spirit was sent after the ascension of Jesus to heaven. But surely the Spirit has always been among us. What comes across in this film is that Mary is moved by the Spirit from the start. For me the most moving moment was at the Last Supper, when Jesus and Mary, after a pre-supper chat, move apart to walk around the two ends of the table and then sit down side by side in the space left for them at the centre. It’s as if they’re equals. This moment bespeaks the equality of man and woman, yes, but I think it goes beyond matters of gender – to imply a kind of equality, in potentia, of each one of us with Jesus; that we are all called to be sons and daughters of God, that we may all carry the divine within us.

A corollary is just after the crucifixion, when Mary, without hesitation, forgives Judas Iscariot – as if she is divinely empowered to do so. She does this wordlessly, with her eyes, hands, and forehead. There’s a similar sense of such embodiment of spiritual processes in the way that healing is depicted – most dramatically when Jesus lies in full-length contact with the body of Lazarus in order to bring him back from death, and is left utterly drained, as if he’s almost given his life to do this. It graphically conveys the interpenetration of matter and spirit.

The climactic scene, in which Mary argues the Kingdom of God is within us while Peter argues the Kingdom will come with Christ’s return, seemed a bit on the nose and, again, too keen to sustain Mary as the ‘hero’. But, delving into Wikipedia when I got home, I discovered that there exists a ‘Gospel of Mary’, which contains just such an argument between Mary and Peter. Just as in the film, Peter asks why they should accept the authenticity of what Mary claims Jesus has said to her. The first six pages of this Gospel manuscript are lost. Scholars have speculated that these missing pages may have narrated a post-resurrection encounter in which Mary received the teachings she now shares.

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Daniel Odier’s Tantric Quest

51m8zdf-l5l-_sx315_bo1204203200_Daniel Odier is a novelist and his spiritual memoir Tantric Quest: An Encounter with Absolute Love has something of the feel of a novel. I found it much more readable than some other books in this genre, such as those of Carlos Castaneda. It tells the story of Odier’s travels in the Himalayas as a young spiritual seeker, in which he had the good fortune to encounter an experienced and powerful yogini who, having tested his earnestness, agreed to teach him.

The straightforward narrative of seeking, meeting, and an escalating sequence of trials is intermixed with the Tantric teaching Odier received from ‘Devi’ and his reflections upon that. Following the convention of books of this kind, a large proportion of the text consists of Devi’s teaching presented through Socratic dialogues. The quotation marks signal the distinction between her teachings and the author’s reflections, but the text they contain is very clear and carefully sequenced and I guess is in fact a stylised reconstruction of the essence of what she taught him.

‘Uncompromising’ would be the word for Devi’s pedagogical style. Not only in the ways she challenges with words. One time she has Odier meditate all night, alternately standing and sitting, at the very edge of cliff, perpetually terrified in the darkness. At dawn she appears beside him and suddenly pushes him over the edge – only to grab him in the next instant and pull him back into her arms.

In the end, as the subtitle indicates, her teaching is about love, divine love, that transcends greed, judgement, and possessiveness. What she teaches, and gives, the 23-year-old Odier is a treasure beyond price. I’d recommend this book to anyone, but especially to young men struggling to reconcile their sexual and spiritual impulses – all the more so with the crisis of masculinity presently exploding every day in the news. Particularly pleasing in his epilogue is the way Odier brings the spiritual quest back to earth and inscribes it in the whole of our lives with words that resonate so strongly for me: ‘To live fully, to be totally present in the reality of our world, to write novels, to publish other authors, to taste the thousand pleasures of life are all part of the way.’

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Raylene Ramsay’s The Literatures of the French Pacific

61padvplgul-_sx322_bo1204203200_Raylene Ramsay’s monograph The Literatures of the French Pacific: Reconfiguring Hybridity has a misleading title. The book deals not with the French Pacific as a whole, but specifically with the French-speaking country of New Caledonia. I can only think this title was a marketing decision reflecting how little known is this country in the English-speaking world. Ramsay is the leading anglophone scholar of New Caledonian literature. Whereas her previous book Nights of Storytelling: A Cultural History of Kanaky–New Caledonia is a compilation of extracts from New Caledonian texts, embedded in a contextualising narrative, The Literatures of the French Pacific is a full-blown critical study based on her many journal articles in this field.

The plural ‘Literatures’ is well chosen to reflect the multiple kinds of literature that have arisen and cross-fertilised each other in New Caledonia: the oral tales of the indigenous Kanak; translation of these into written French texts; memoirs and studies written by European explorers, missionaries, and colonists; emergent literary writing by Kanak authors; and literary writing from the French settler community. Ramsay deploys postcolonial critical apparatus from the likes of Homi Bhaba and Stuart Hall to ruminate upon the space of encounter between Kanak, European, and other immigrant communities (Wallisian, Tahitian, Vietnamese); but develops her own theorisation, in terms of cultural ‘hybridity’ and ‘métissage’, of the ways that New Caledonian literatures give expression to the unique circumstances of this country, in which neither the Kanak nor the white Caledonian community constitutes a majority of the population.

Particularly interesting to me as a writer who is also a storyteller is Ramsay’s analysis of Kanak oral tales and the ways these have been reworked, not only in translations and retellings, but also in plays and prose fiction. She gives very detailed attention to the writings of Déwé Gorodé, the first Kanak novelist (also a poet and politician); and evident in these and other Kanak writings is a understanding of reality that resists rationalist European norms and reflects the continuing importance to Kanak of the invisible world of spirits and its influence upon human well-being. Equally interesting is Ramsay’s discussion of contemporary white writers, such as Claudine Jacques and Nicolas Kurtovitch, who have moved beyond the preconceptions of their literary predecessors and interfaced with Kanak tradition in ways that are respectful, informed, and creatively innovative; work that transcends default anxieties about cultural appropriation and makes a positive contribution towards fulfilling the vision of New Caledonian peoples’ ‘common destiny’ in their beautiful island home.


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Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me

the2bspy2bwho2bloved2bme2b5The Spy Who Loved Me was the only one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels that I didn’t reread the second time round, in my early thirties. The reason I didn’t was probably the same reason the critics had panned it. Both they and I did the book an injustice.

You see, this is the Bond novel where James Bond doesn’t appear on the scene until over halfway through. When he does, he certainly makes an impact, on both the villains and the girl; but in this novel it’s the girl – Vivienne Michel – who’s the main character. Not only that, she narrates the story. It’s a young woman’s confession of her search for love with men who couldn’t love her as she deserved, and then suddenly finding herself totally out of her depth, trapped in a lonely American motel with a pair of psychos who have every intention to rape, torture, and murder her. The ultimate scenario of men’s disrespect for woman. And then, fortunately for her, unfortunately for them, the doorbell rings. James Bond’s car has a puncture and he needs to stay the night.

I think the reason the critics panned The Spy Who Loved Me was that it didn’t meet their expectations of what kind of book a Bond thriller should be. That was certainly my reaction when I read it when I was thirteen. Fleming wanted to try something different. But the critics and the fans didn’t want that. They wanted him to stick to the formula. Fleming took their reactions so much to heart that he demanded there be no paperback till after his death and that no film should be made using any of the plot; that’s the reason the film The Spy Who Loved has a completely new story. Even Douglas Kennedy, in his introduction to my 2012 edition, has the air of pointing out the redeeming features of an inherently weak book.

All of which is a shame. When I reread the novel after an interval of nearly forty years, I was swept away by how good it is. I read it compulsively, almost in one sitting. How often do I do that any more? Because of the omnipresence of the James Bond movie phenomenon, it’s easy to forget just how good a writer Fleming was. His style, his pacing, imagery, and choreography are superb. His villains are brilliant caricatures – if you can let go fretting about the class politics in play between them and Bond. And in this novel Fleming writes convincingly as a young woman. You feel for her naive dreams of what she wants in life. You share in what seems to her the exoticism of upstate New York in the off season, and then the terror and drama of what ensues in the motel.

So I’m glad Fleming wrote this book, even if he regretted it. It varies the texture of reading his Bond oeuvre. And it’s an object lesson in the power of expectations and how you sometimes have to defy them in order to do something original and good.

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On two wheels in New Caledonia

New Caledonia Today

by Guest Author, Anthony Nanson


The first time I came back from New Caledonia, in 2007, I showed my friend Peter a map of the country and he said, ‘It looks like it could be a great place to cycle in.’ Peter is crazy about cycling, has cycle-toured in many countries. When I returned to Caledonia ten years later, he customised a bike specially for my needs: tough enough to handle rough roads, good on tarmac too, and able to carry four paniers with full camping kit.

There was lots of preparation for this trip, and lots of expense – it’s about as far away as you can go from Gloucestershire – and it’s not entirely straightforward to transport a bicycle by air. So you can imagine how I felt, my first day in Nouméa, when I asked at the tourist office about the best route to cycle north…

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Hugh Lupton’s The Ballad of John Clare

51vnf9m27hl-_sx311_bo1204203200_Among the leading figures of the British storytelling revival, Hugh Lupton is one very worthy of ecocritical attention. Shows such as On Common Ground (performed with Chris Wood) and The Liberty Tree (performed with Nick Hennessey) passionately engage with the history of dissent and land politics in England. His first novel, The Ballad of John Clare, expands to book length On Common Ground’s tale of the young Clare’s doomed love for Mary Joyce amidst the onset of enclosure.

In the stage show Lupton explicitly equates the external landscape with Clare’s own inscape, so when the peasant-poet is alienated from the land by enclosure he is at the same time driven ‘out of his mind’. The novel, on the other hand, does not take us beyond the genesis of his poetic genius and his madness as two halves of the same seed of potential. It’s narrated in a rhythmic oral voice deploying, like Clare, elements of dialect syntax and vocabulary, and from an external, highly visualised perspective that only glancingly dips inside the characters’ consciousness. An enigmatic narrative ‘I’ is briefly introduced at the beginning; only the revelation of this narrator’s identity on the final page allows us, in a satisfying gestalt, to make sense of the metaphysical relationship between the system of perspective and Clare’s mind.

Using a carefully deployed set of characters, Lupton shows the differential effects of enclosure for different strata of the community. The big landowners get richer. Middling ones, like Mary’s father, do okay. Small-time farmers go bankrupt because of the cost of fencing their allocation. Day labourers, like Clare, get work doing the fencing for the landowners, but are then deprived of resources they once took from the commons to supplement their meagre wages. Squatters on the commons get moved on, their homes burnt down. Gypsies are eliminated. Trees are felled and streams straightened into dykes: ‘With every stroke of iron to timber there is a sudden veering in the flight of a bird; a sudden start in the winter-sleep of badger, hedgehog, mole; a sudden shift in the deep droning note of bees in their skeps against the church wall’ (167).

The consequences are not just economic. Enclosure obstructs access to the merestones marking the parish boundary that’s traditionally walked on Rogation Sunday. The break-up of the big shared fields makes agricultural work less sociable. Lupton thickens his story of enclosure and Clare and Mary’s romance by means of an encyclopaedic presentation of folk culture: hunting, harvesting, shearing, music, morris plays, the fair, superstitions, folk medicine, seasonal ceremonies and games. He doesn’t glamorise the hardship of rustic toil; he conveys how this unlettered community possessed a sophisticated culture, that bound the community together and to the ecosystem they inhabited, and that all this will be swept away by a reorganisation of land use motivated by the greed of the rich for more wealth at the expense of the poor and the wild. Let the reader judge what that says to England today, exactly two hundred years since the year the story is set.

First published in Green Letters, No. 15, 2011


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Creatures the World Forgot – and Maybe for a Reason?

Creatures the World Forgot

I’m conscious this blog tends to wander off a bit from its declared focus on the exotic and the prehistoric. So let’s get back to basics – and a look at another prehistoric movie classic. I never saw this film as a kid (it’s an 18). I didn’t even see it in the course of my systematic researching of prehistory when I was working on Deep Time. In fact I’ve only just seen it, now the price of the DVD has dropped enough to justify buying it.

Creatures the World Forgot (1971) was a follow-up from Hammer to cash in on the success of One Million Years B.C. (1966) and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). There’s a vague sense early on that it’s reprising the same basic storyline – edgy encounter between brunet and blond tribes – but then things get more complex, involving two generations of chiefs and medicine women and the age-old trope of rivalry between two brothers. I found it quite hard to keep track of the plot – at the level of character motivations – in large part because communication is reduced to the most basic of grunts (no subtitles) and gestures.

This primitive grunting is part and parcel of the film’s self-presentation as a kind of drama documentary. Unlike its campy predecessors, it seems to take itself seriously. That means, for starters, no dinosaurs. So none of the Ray Harryhausen or Jim Danforth stop-motion effects that were the most celebrated feature (bar Raquel Welch) of the earlier films. What you get instead is superb photography of real African landscapes, an anthropological enthusiasm for primitive survival technologies and body ornamentation, and real African animals. It’s a shame, though, not to see any serious big game. The most formidable creature is a crazed wildebeest that implausibly – in speeded-up footage – attacks and kills one of the main characters.

Star billing in the film’s publicity went to ‘the Norwegian beauty’ Julie Ege (she’d come second in the Miss Norway contest), but her character’s role in the story is minimal. The focus is much more on the father and two sons and an older medicine woman whose machinations seem to drive much of what happens. The 18 rating is undeserved; the level of violence would barely rate a 15 today, but the violence does seem harsher than in One Million Years B.C. and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth because of the consistently more realistic tone. I’d say the acting is better too, certainly than in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. The grim survivalism of these Palaeolithic hunters, the desperate competition for resources, power, women, has something serious to say about default human nature – and the perennial difficulties of getting the people of the world to live together peacefully.

All told, Creatures the World Forgot is not a badly made film; it just doesn’t have the creatures and the campiness to entertain in the way its predecessors may lead you to expect. One other thing to point out, which probably never crossed the minds of the film-makers back in 1971: in this African landscape, populated by African animals, why are the prehistoric people all Europeans?

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Valerian and Laureline and the Dream of Paradise

ValerianI was wrong to think that the guy and the girl always had equal billing in the title of the original comic series: Valérian et Laureline was for most of its history Valérian, agent spatio-temporel. But I still reckon the only reason they called the film Valerian (and the City of a Thousand Planets), despite its two protagonists having fastidiously equal roles, was fear that action-adventure American men would assume that something called Valerian and Laureline must be some kind of romance they wouldn’t want to see.

There was a bit of a romantic subplot and the less said about that, the better, except that I really wish Luc Besson had spent a few euros from his US$200 million budget to let a good scriptdoctor sort out that thread of the story. Aside from those embarrassing scenes, the film is magnificent. It is true to the zany humour of Christin and Mézières’ bandes dessinées – something else that might wrongfoot action-adventure fans – and it’s more than true to the comics’ visual inventiveness, hugely influential as they have been on SF visual culture; not least on Star Wars – as Besson’s film repeatedly reminds us. The sheer abundance of imaginative visual complexity seems to me an affirmation of the wonderfulness of diversity, complexity, intricacy – of cultures, creatures, habitats, places – in the real world as much as in fantasy.

I’m aware that much of the appeal of that, as in John Carter and Avatar, depends on the kind of exoticising of other cultures which goes back to Orientalist painting and literature and which the critics remind us went hand in hoof with European imperialism. Worse yet, maybe, when it comes to the paradise planet Mül and its scantily clothed natives who live in harmony with their environment and never forget to ‘give something back to nature in return for all that she gives us’, who might be seen as romanticising or essentialising the indigenous peoples – in Africa, Polynesia? – who inspired them. But what’s the alternative? Would it really be more okay to depict indigenous peoples as having degraded the ecosystems they inhabit? Or as lacking adequate medical knowledge, say?

The people of Mül have the best of both worlds; they choose to live close to nature but they have sophisticated technological capability when they need it. Future primitive. Something to aspire to, I’d say. Friends I saw Valerian with came out saying they wished they could live on Mül. Why shouldn’t they feel that? Isn’t it because of such a longing for earthly paradise that people go in their millions on beach holidays, hoping to catch at least a glimmer of it? I was lucky enough to live for a year between the mountains and the sea in a not too developed part of Greece, and it was the year of my life when I have felt most intensely happy.

The natives of Mül lost their planet as a result of Earthmen’s destructiveness. Their longing for the paradise that was their birthright becomes a mission to remake it. Light-hearted though the film may be, the systematic determination with which they pursue that task, together with the scale of Besson’s effort to bring to life such complex imagined worlds, made me wonder what could be achieved in our own world if we truly put our mind to it. The turnover last year of the RSPB, one of the world’s biggest conservation charities, was slightly less than the cost of making Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Organisations like the RSPB do fantastic work, have rewilded plots of land and saved species from extinction, but of course it’s never enough, not when set against the scale of ecological destruction wrought by modern civilisation. I’m not saying – I don’t want to say – we shouldn’t spend millions on film fantasies like Valerian, but if we can muster the cost and the effort to create such astonishing dreamworlds, do we not have it in our power to make, restore, sustain beautiful places on our own planet too?

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