In the Chinks of the World Machine

805768In the Chinks of the World Machine provides a committed but very readable picture of the achievements of serious science fiction by women at the time of its publication in 1988. Sarah Lefanu was in a privileged position to write such a book, as an editor who’d created new opportunities for women’s SF through the unique SF list she managed at the Women’s Press.

The book comprises two parts. The first presents an overview of the depiction of women in SF and the ways in which women writers, mainly from the 1970s onwards, have revolutionised the possibilities on that score. Part 2 studies in detail the work of four key writers: James Tiptree, Jr (aka Alice Sheldon), Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Joanna Russ.

Russ is the presiding spirit of the book. Lefanu rates her significance very highly, both as novelist and as critic, and explains how her writing aims to shock, to provoke, to wake people up from their assumptions – and to leave them, not with answers, but fretting about what they’ve read. At the opposite pole, among the many writers discussed in Part 1, is Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose attempts to tackle feminist themes miss the point, Lefanu argues, and leave women where they already are.

Lefanu’s terms of evaluation are largely political; she mentions points of aesthetics as and when they’re instrumental to political effect. But I was pleased to see her bracket Tanith Lee with Angela Carter as a writer doing a similar kind of work and just as good, despite the one being branded a genre writer while the other is lauded as a major literary figure. There’s good discussion of the theme of feminist utopia, e.g. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Sally Miller Gearheart’s The Wanderground, and the rather scarier societies in Charnas’s Motherlines and Walk to the End of the World.

Lefanu’s book concerns a conversation among women, whether they be novelists or critics. The short shrift she gives to male writers’ reactions to Russ’s seminal essay ‘The Image of Women in Science Fiction’ (1971) give fair warning of the moral risk of making any critical comment in this context if you happen to be a man. If I were to hazard any criticism it would be to challenge the treatment of Le Guin. Lefanu critiques her work more harshly than that of the other major writers examined, because of her tendencies to use male protagonists and to sustain the sensibilities of the bourgeois novel. For sure, it makes good thought experiments, to imagine more severely alternative societies, such as Charnas’s, say, in which there’s no place for men, but I think Le Guin deserves a bit more praise than she gets in this book for her commitment to the possibilities of transformation of existing society, and for the humane sense of compassion engendered by the sensitivity of her prose.

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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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