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The Power, by Naomi Alderman: A Review

[The Power, Naomi Alderman, London, Penguin Books, 2017]

I skimmed through The Power in less than a week – a quick read for me, these days. It is what I might, crudely, term a ‘cracking yarn’; a story, well written, intelligently laid out, which bravely takes a premise and runs with it, though a series of literally shocking episodes to the collapse of the old world and the rise of the new. It’s been widely lauded – called a ‘future classic’ of genre, praised by Margaret Attwood – and it is the first work of SF to win the Bailey’s Prize. I was pulled through the story from the moment I opened it, compelled to find out the consequences of the rise of The Power. Ultimately, this is a book about consequences more than it is about gender; the intended, unintended, and terminal results of the actions of individuals in and on the world.  

For those who haven’t read The Power, a quick precis: the book is bookended with a framing narrative, an email exchange between a subservient male historian and his divertingly mysandrous female colleague – who may, it is implied, have once taken him has her lover. The man, Neil Adam Armon, writes the story that we read in The Power itself; an almost blasphemous ficto-historical account of life before the Cataclysm, which Neil has the temerity to suggest might have been controlled by men – obviously, Naomi, his colleague, laughs at him for the ridiculous notion. The story that we are told focuses around four main characters – Roxy Monke, in whom the Power manifests as a response to the murder of her mother by men – Allie Montgomery-Taylor, who kills her rapist foster-father with the Power and goes on to become the religious leader Mother Eve – Tunde Edo, who is the first to film the Power in action, and who becomes a chronicler of the unfurling events – and Margot Cleary, a middle aged woman in whom the Power is awakened and with it, political success. Other people exist around them – the girls of Allie’s convent, the unhinged president of Bessapara, the women’s country, Roxy’s family, Margot’s daughter Jos – but these are our key focalizers as readers. The world in which they live may well be our own – it has YouTube, it has mobile phones, it has the same countries and placenames and vices and violences and crimes. That world is thrown into chaos when, one day, girls of about fourteen years old reveal a power to produce electricity – they can electrocute, shock, cause pain, burns and can even kill. This is called the Power, and its source is a skein, an extra organ which grows around the collarbone, and for which a number of causes are postulated throughout the book. The Power gives women what they need to rise up, to take over, to rebel; in oppressive, misogynistic regimes, but also, in less abusive societies, simply because they can. Ultimately, this leads to the Cataclysm which, several thousand years later, produced the world of the frame narrative.

To give Alderman her credit, she takes the notion of females becoming the dominant gender and tackles it without casting an overly romantic eye to her fellow women. Women are not inherently good, the story says, and no, the world would not automatically be a better place if they were in charge, because power does not see gender, and can corrupt all. By implication, neither are men inherently bad; they merely have the power, which facilitates and even directly produces, their tendency to misogyny. But I read through the book with a strange ambiguity; a growing unease that I didn’t begin to put my finger on until about a quarter of the way through, and which I am not sure I have, as yet, established all the multivariate tangents of. That ambiguity is what I’d like to explore here.

The three tangents that I have so far uncovered are as follows: the framing narrative, which is perhaps the least problematic; the lack of intersectionality, which seems at best a missed opportunity and at worst complete erasure; and the pages between 318 and 323, in which the whole thing – the force, the purpose, even the feminism of the book – is completely undermined.

One: Failed Scherezade

Framing narratives are inherently falsifying and difficult to write, let alone to write well. Historical frame narratives always, inevitably, remind me of Dinotopia. I don’t say that to be flippant; I say that because they always distance the author from the fabula, always make the content more fantastical and the named author less responsible for its oddities and vagaries. Like Dunsany with Joseph Jorkens, the author cedes responsibility to a less than reliable narrator. In our case, the narrator, Neil, may well be a good historian, but the frame narrative, simply by existing, implies that it is also possible that he is biased, revisionist, and that his story is simply that – just a story. Just a story which tells of oppression based on gender. Just a fairytale in which, for a time, women can see theirrise to power coming to fruition. 

The argument between Naomi and Neil on this revisionism is interesting because, intentionally or otherwise, it echoes the debates which are at present playing out surrounding the recovery of POC and LGBTQIA2 histories from white-, cis-, hetero-washing. And whilst we understand – I hope – that it is absolutely critical to reclaim those histories which were always there, in The Power, the value of doing so remains ambiguous; there is no clarity on the author’s views on subjugated men rewriting a past for themselves. I am unsure how to interpret the function of this frame narrative, because it makes Neil’s story both more, and less, true; and I don’t know which, if any, of the answers, offers a better moral reading. But in the end, we have to go with the convention; frame narratives lie, or, at the very minimum, they cut off the bits they don’t want their viewers to see.

This particular frame also fails in execution, mostly because the story that we are told is not mimetic to a fictionalised history – neither the realism of We Speak No Treason and The Heaven Tree, or the fantasy of Midnight Never Come and The Court of the Midnight King. It fails because the framed narrative is mimetic to our world: with its human sex-trafficking, Ayatollahs, YouTube, Syria, drug running, accents. The images which are peppered throughout the book are more successful in articulating the mystery of a vanished people, but even they fail; place names remain, South Sudan (p.34), the Post-London Village Conglomeration (p.162). The detail is too much, too specific, too retained and, crucially, too close to our own world to function believably as a fictionalised history. Particularly as a history which is supposed to be written 5000 or so years after the Cataclysm – the end of the world, the deluge. The frame narrative adds nothing positive to the bulk of the book, which would stand alone as a contemporary/near future SF thriller. Instead, it turns it into an unsuccessful, and unsubtle, attempt at a parable, with its author standing back from it, at a distance, so as not to get caught in the inevitable mucky splashback if it all goes wrong. It makes this book more clunky, the exact opposite of what it needs, because this is a book heaving under the weight of one idea (admittedly, with the many ripples that idea provokes) and wielding the hammer of feminism with about as much subtlety as a housebrick chucked through a glasshouse at the silent but wakeful time of 3am. It is hyperbolic to a fault – and this is where we come to our next, more urgent, problem.

Two: The Children of the Sun, The Children of the Earth, The Children of the Moon

I’m having a Hedwig and the Angry Inch moment here. Specifically, I’m thinking about the song ‘The Origin of Love’, which tells a similarly fictive, similarly cataclysmic story of the split of humanity into two, rather than three, genders. And though ‘The Origin of Love’ is itself not entirely representative (does it claim to be? No.), it does talk about silenced ones, about people who are not there even though they always were, about people who are feared. This is the unease that I first began to tease out of this book: in this book which is, on some overt level at least a little about gender politics, there are no queer people. There are only people with ‘chromosomal irregularities’, people ‘in whom the thing hadn’t taken right’, ‘[inquotes]deviants and abnormals[endquote]'(p.153). These people are, however, in all other ways, cis and hetero. The gender binary here is so painfully clear cut that it almost bleeds. With Jos, Margot’s daughter, there was an opportunity, potentially, to explore the effect of the skein on a character who could have been gay, or trans or nonbinary, or anything. But she is reduced to being ill, abnormal, incomplete. And whilst this incompleteness and the way she is teased for it can perhaps be read as a satire on the way that girls (all girls?) are commonly perceived to mock each other for their lack of sexual appeal (or ability to contour or whatever, because we’re so fucking shallow that our value is confined only to our ability to purchase Charlotte Tilbury), when we look at this through a Queer lens, the attribution of Jos’s condition to simply ‘sickness’ begins to look very much like something which might have preceded conversion and electro-shock therapy in some other time and place (and, sadly, in some Nows). If any book needed to be representative, it was this, but instead it spent its time swinging it’s Second Wave ironwork around like it was 1983. If anything, this makes me as angry as it does because the success of this book means that that kind of feminism – the kind that is used to bully and erase – has been validated at the expense of a feminism which is intersectional and which works with and for and alongside everyone.

Three: The End of All Things

The voice says: Listen, I’ll level with you: my optimism about the human race is not what it once was. I’m sorry it can’t be simple for you anymore.

Allie says: It’s getting dark.

The voice says: Sure is.

Allie says: Welp. I see what you’re saying. Been nice working with you.

The voice says: Likewise. See you on the other side.

Mother Eve opens her eyes. The voices in her head are gone. She knows what to do.

(p.320)

Margot says, ‘How can we stop this happening?’

They tell the Senator it has already happened.

Margot says, ‘No, how can we stop it happening again?’

There is a voice in Margot’s head. It says: You can’t get there from here.

(p.323)

Were the voice to have departed with the end of the quote from p.320, we would have been left with the idea that Allie was simply mad, and that her rise to power was the result of this madness. It is not a great idea to be left with, admittedly, because of its implicit assertion that powerful women are mad (especially as Tatiana, ruler of Bessapara, also looses her mind). But it is better than the idea that arises when we realise that the voice is now speaking to Margot instead, and with the same words that it used to encourage Allie on her way to becoming Mother Eve. If we accept, as we must, that the voice is the same voice, then we must also accept that the rise of women is not a product of their own actions, but of Machiavellian posturings at a supernatural level. The women do not rise of their own volition; they are manipulated, given tools and ideas, and set on their destructive path.

We could read the voice metaphorically, as a textual manifestation of power – the corrupting kind. But sometimes a dragon is just a dragon, and this voice is not written in a way which suggests it is anything other than a literal voice. That it moves to Margot proves that it is not a figment of Allie/Eve’s imagination: ergo, the Voice (a proper noun now) must be an entity all its own. And I cannot help but wonder, with the book’s overtly Christian symbolism and the Voice’s own reference to ‘another Prophet’, whether it is supposed to be, if not Lucifer himself, one of his many demonic acolytes.

TLDR; women in power are possessed by the Devil.

Cataclysmic Thoughts

The first issue, the frame, is as much a structural problem as it is an ethical one. But the latter flaws – erasure and demonic possession – are so thoroughly ethical and so thoroughly problematic that I cannot, in good conscience, approve of this book. I’m not telling you not to read it; it is, as ever, your choice as readers, your right to engage with the texts you choose to engage with. But you – and I – have a responsibility to do so critically – acutely, analytically, cynically – and not to jump on bandwagons because books appear, on the surface, to ascribe to the ideals we support. Do not make this book a feminist manifesto; it is not. I am not even sure it makes any claim to be.

None of this is written to suggest that Alderman is anti-feminist (I have no evidence for such a suggestion, and to make one would be harmful and accusatory); but it is written to suggest that the book itself lacks considerable nuance in dealing with the issues faced by contemporary social justice and human rights movements. I had hoped that feminism had come a long way from, and arrived at a more nuanced and inclusive place than, where it was when le Guin or Russ were at their peak. This book – and, more crucially, its success – suggest that this is not, sadly, the case. 

Station Blues

“She won’t calm down, dammit!”

“Strap her down, then.”

“Shit. One of the best, gonna be wacko now for God knows how long. Perhaps forever.”

“Space hysteria. She was bound to be prone to it.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up, Bruce. Hormones and gyne don’t make you more susceptible to the space-freaky. It’s cold and lonely up here, and she was alone in a reccy pod. For months on end. Gender be damned, you Neanderthal. Best put her down on the bed and see if this tranq works. Hopefully after a good sleep she’ll be more inclined to talk.”

#

I knew at the time they didn’t believe me. No matter what I tried to tell them. That I’d not lost my mind, but that I had seen things and heard things and…touched and tasted and smelled things that would screw any sane person up.

I told them, for instance, about the dragging loneliness of the previous months. That I had just so desperately wished for some company – any company at all, even a drone, as long as it moved and whirred and made some sound.

And I told them about how I felt when, all of a sudden, despite my sensors giving no indication of anything in the area, the Station hove into view. God, she was gorgeous. Pinnacles and peaks, a Vernian City in the Sky. I knew at once that she was not a product of any Earth that I knew.

I told them that I tried to hail her. That all I got was static, and the fragments of a garbled message in a language that I had no chance of understanding. I told them that I was spooked, but there was something pulling me towards her. I don’t know what. The promise of company, perhaps, or sheer curiosity.

I told them that on docking I felt wrong. Indefinably, but certainly, wrong. I felt sick, heavy, sluggish. And I told them that the way the grappling arms and tracker machinery for the docking bay creaked and groaned suggested to me that this was a Station left untended for a long, long time.

I told them that the air was cold and dusty when I reached the main concourse. I told them that all the lights were on, and that turning them off at the power made not the blindest bit of difference. I told them that all the food modules served a only tarry black mush. I told them that I could hear…scuttling. Rat-scratchy scritter-snitch. And husky breathing. I told them that, before I realized what had happened, my module had been sealed off from me. I told them that I got lost in the light. In the gargantuan space.

I told them that there was nowhere to hide.

I told them. I did.

#

“She’s determined we shouldn’t go. I am inclined to agree.”

“Oh come on. It’s there and it’s fantastic. This is the find of the century. We have to go. If we don’t, we’ll be deemed cowards. Frightened of a hysterical woman’s fairytale.”

“I’ve told you before. She’s not hysterical.”

“So you expect me to believe that what she told us is the product of a sane mind? Come on. She’s worked herself into a frenzy. Nothing more. Space bonkers.”

“I think you’re wrong. We didn’t beleive her that the Station existed and now, here it is. I feel like we should believe her on this count too.”

“She found something incredible and was overwhelemed. That’s all. Nothing sinister.”

“I’m dubious.”

“Well I’m going. You come or not, it’s up to you.”

“Supposed I’d better. I don’t want you wrecking things over there. But I’m not happy. We’ll stay in contact with the ship regularly. She’ll be alright with the drones. I have to admit…the prospect of exploring something this alien is becoming more and more appealing.”

#

I told them. I screamed at them when they said they were going. I told them that they wouldn’t come back. I told them that I had launched myself out in my evac suit knowing that I would probably die alone in space but that that was better than being in there and…not alone.

I told them that they couldn’t leave me. That they had found me and now they couldn’t leave. I told them that they’d find nothing of value. Just waking nightmares.

But they didn’t listen. They went.

I waited.

But they never came back.

I’m still waiting. I can’t fly this thing. I know how it works. But my hands and eyes don’t work anymore. The light in the Station was so bright and hot.

I can smell. And taste. And hear. That’s all.

And mostly, the only thing I hear is scuttling.

Untitled Letter

I am writing you this letter because, foolishly, I like the permanence it pretends to invoke. Don’t imagine for one minute I think it will find its way to you, there on the outside. They’re too good for that – no hope of even smuggling it out in the toilet waste. They’ve grubby, greedy fingers, and they feed their suspicions on my fleshy words. But still, when I write, when I press the pen to paper (poor surrogate for your skin) I can hope for one tiny moment.

I am writing you this letter because they gave us pens and paper. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is a deliberately exquisite form of torture – to offer the means of creating communication which can never be received. Nothing can leave the Exclusion Zone.

I am writing you this letter because I miss you. I remember running with you along the Prospect of Builders. We were proud to be the young denizens of Atomograd – the truest and most devoted Children of Kurchatov. I held your hand and we laughed – you, with cheeks flushed, in cotton clothes. We laughed, we Seekers of the New Dawn.

I am writing you this letter to tell you that I didn’t die. That I and many others survived the disaster. To tell you that they didn’t just evacuate – they screened – and that there were those of us, too irradiated to live, too stubborn to die, who were kept confined: at best as a safety precaution, at worst, as an experiment. They drop us food. Visit us in Hazmat Suits, as though our very atmosphere is alien. If we ask, they say they will pass on messages and gifts. I know they never do, and what I have I to bribe them with anyway?

I am writing you this letter to say that the Polsie is returning. The trees are very beautiful in autumn, and now they lace their way through the platforms at Yanov Station, where I left you for the last time, when we still had nuclear light in our eyes. They came to regain the place that it rightfully theirs – instead of the Red Army, the Red Forest marches its way across our Boulevards and Streets.

I wish we had made love.

I am writing you this letter because I am the last one left. They come to count us, to call us to register. For the last three times, I have been the only one to report. I am sure there were more, delirious from the power of our small sun. Disfigured and demented. Sometimes, we would commune, at others fight for food and the best wood for primitive fires. In the early days we had raided shops, watched TV with a strange, desperate indolence – a sense of holiday, freedom from the world, tempered by the desire not to be anymore lonesome. Slowly, our signal grew less – I can only assume things have changed, and our technology has been left behind. I do not even know what year it is, or what time – my watch has been stuck at 03.45 for too long now.

I am writing you this letter before I myself succumb – to disease or solitude or my own brain, I am not sure. But I know that I will succumb, and so I write, in the deluded hope that in the ashes of this, the final burnout, my toxic hands will leave something on this earth which expresses to you…which expresses…well.

Maybe you know.

Sad Man of Flowers

Early morning, and the frost glitters on the tarmac. Everything is ice, and quiet, as though sound itself has chosen to freeze, and listen to itself shatter. I came out here for the quiet, and for the sunrise – in the east, the sky is bleeding.

No-one is awake yet, inside. Perhaps they are dreaming of presents. Perhaps they are recovering from last night’s festivities. Perhaps. Everything seemed rather raucous this year. Kids full of sweeties, adults full of brandy and wine. This is the only peace there will be all day. Breathe: it is so cold my breath doesn’t even steam.

Creaking. Water flushing. Someone, groggily, moves downstairs. I watch them, through the window of the living room. There she is, my Enid. She looks better now than she has for years. Her hair is dyed that vibrant red she so likes (and I have to admit, thinking about it, I don’t know why I didn’t like it before), and she is trim, athletic almost. Her pyjamas are new – no wine stains or splodges of pasta sauce. She crouches around the tree, groans slightly with the movement downwards, but manages to creep low enough to make sure that all the presents are there. She pauses over one for a long time, a small box marked, ‘To Enid, with love, from Dai’. Then she puts it down, amongst the others.

Almost immediately, there is a shriek from upstairs. That’d be Deri, our eldest. He’s always been too excitable, and this year he is more so than most. I hear him squealing with delight upstairs, and Enid giggling with him. Then I hear the softer footsteps of my little girl, Gwen. Her full name is Gwenfrewi, but we were always inclined to shorten our kids names. Pryderi and Gwenfrewi. Mouthfuls, but I’m a traditionalist.

I hear Gweni slide down the stairs on her arse. Clearly, she’s not yet mastered the art of walking down. I feel vaguely disappointed in her – otherwise, she’s so bright. She emerges into the living room, tiny and pale with big dark eyes, and she looks out of the window, directly at me. But she doesn’t seem bothered. She turns around, and pokes at the presents, sitting with the bottled up patience needed to wait for her mother and a suitably calmed brother to emerge. She’s always seemed older than Deri. She looks out of the window again, and I think she almost sees me, there against the background of the trees. She narrows her eyes, and is about to say something when Enid comes in and distracts her with a stocking. I never did stockings – this is new, and Gwen jumps up, more the five year old she really is. She never looked like that when she was with me.

I hear other steps. It’s the other man, the man from last night, downstairs with a fighting seven year old in his arms. He puts the flailing child down, and it’s my son, who has never seemed so happy. He pecks Enid on the cheek, then draws her into a long kiss, and I have to turn away because my stomach is doing somersaults.

“I told you,” says Dai, “everything is alright now.”

“I know,” she says. “I don’t miss that man at all.”

My name is Drystan! Say my name!

“I want to give you a special present first. I want this to be our Christmas as a proper family. So kids, can you wait till I give your Mammy something?”

They nod. Little traitors. Kids are so mercurial. Not my fault. Not at all.

He pulls out the little box from the pile, and she opens it, with an expectant, knowing look. I see a blink of diamond and gold under the light from the tree, and I don’t need to look to know it is a ring. Now everything crumbles, and I am going with it. I see you, all together, so happy like we never were. I know you don’t care, you never did. I told you as much whilst you watched me with blackened eyes. All I wanted was for you to see me, but you never did, did you? Not really. You said I wasn’t there anymore, that the drink had taken me, but you just didn’t look hard enough, Eni, just not hard enough. Not even when I hit you to make you pay attention. And now I can see – I can see it all, everything. Everything in your eyes says you are happy. And I am faded…

“Spooky. I could swear someone was watching.”

“Nothing there, Enid cariad. Nothing at all.”

What I Talk About When I Talk About Rabelais

I intended to open this blog much earlier, and with a more contextualizing post. Events, and life in general, have rather overtaken me, however, so I’m posting here, rather later than intended, but hopefully not without value.

My aim for this blog is to write quite specifically on the grotesque and laughing elements of science fiction: the Rabelaisian. This first true post, then, sets out some of that stall, and sits within a series of posts – The Rabelais/Bester Sequence – in which I will explore that concept with specific reference to the book from which this blog grew – Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

But let’s begin with Rabelais himself.

Francois_Rabelais_-_Portrait

Born in France at the end of the fifteenth century, Francois Rabelais grew up at a turning point in European history. His life saw the tail end of the Medieval period and the flowering of scientific, political and religious revolution. Practising as both a cleric and a physician, Rabelais was also a humanist who published comical pamphlets which critiqued authority and stressed individual liberty. Humanism of this period can be simplistically defined as an attempt to revitalize the values and knowledge of classical antiquity, and to offer this education pervasively, to all society, not just an elite few. Milan Kundera called him the founder of the novel – ‘in the eyes of nearly every great novelist of our time he is, along with Cervantes, the founder of an entire art, the art of the novel’ (New Yorker, 2007). And yet, in the same article, Kundera also notes how he is often placed low in importance by French literarians – in part, he suspects, because of his vulgarity. To our contemporary eyes, he is certainly extremely profane – curses and disgusting events litter the lives of Gargantua and his family – and yet he inspired Lawrence Sterne, Alfred Jarry (who, admittedly, is also quite coarse) Hilaire Belloc, and Honore de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine. Ultimately, Rabelais’ works are human – with all the gross and laughable elements that implies. We may have hierarchies, which are socially imposed, but we all shit.

By Гюстав Доре [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Гюстав Доре [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rabelais most famous work, Gargantua and Pantagruel, embodies many of these ideas: egalitarianism, critique – whilst also throwing in their medico-fantastical discussions of the body and of language, and the ways in which these are perceived and used.* It is a story of excessive people, in the best sense of the term. Gargantua is born to a father, Grandgousier, and a mother, Gargamelle, in a profoundly (and I use that word in association with its many etymological relations) explosive, grotesque fashion – his mother being treated for diarrhoea, which treatment tightens up all relevant parts of her anatomy, he leaps up her body and crawls out through her left ear. His first call is for drink, and he continues his excess throughout his childhood and adulthood. His own son, Pantagruel, is so large that in being born, he kills his own mother, and his birth is surrounded by portents of his greatness. Their adventures, which are many, are a parade of oddity and, to our eyes, nonsensical and tasteless, but they are presented by Rabelais with admiration – almost hagiographic. Their excess is brightly coloured, their adventures strange and otherworldly: there lies an immediate parallel with pulp characters such as Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius, though we must be cautious, as ever, about over-emphasizing such associations.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dancers_at_the_End_of_Time#/media/File:Dancers_at_the_end_of_time.jpg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dancers_at_the_End_of_Time#/media/File:Dancers_at_the_end_of_time.jpg

I’m hoping that, in the following blogs, I will be able to uncover, and interrogate more subtlety than I can in this introduction, more parallels between Rabelais and science fiction. The Stars My Destination, to my eyes, is the perfect vehicle for this exploration: it’s (anti?)hero is excessive, in his laziness and in his lusts; marked out by his facial tattoos, which give him a gigantic personality in the public domain; its language and events are colourful, bright, excessive, outlandish; its language buoyant, twisted and coarse. In these blogs I’ll talk about language, laughter, the carnivalesque, sensuality, sexuality, the body, parodies, death and rebirth, hierarchy, fear, the grotesque, madness and utopia. I hope you’ll come and join me.

*In the Renaissance, the ‘rehabilitation of the flesh’ was a reaction against the body-denying asceticism of the religious life of the Middle Ages (Bakhtin, 1984, 18).

Bakhtin, M., Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, 1984

Kundera, M., ‘Die Weltliteratur: European novelists and modernism’, The New Yorker, January 8, 2007

 

Climbing, and Falling Down, Yggdrasill: A Report from NineWorlds Geekfest, 2015

W and I have just returned from NineWorlds – London Geekfest 2015. It was probably the first con I’ve been to where I’ve felt like I belong in the Skiffy community – like I kinda know what I’m doing – though this is less a function of NineWorlds itself, I think, than it is of increasing experience. Despite being a lifelong fan of genre, particularly hard SF and localised, folklore based fantasy, I’d never attended a con until I started going out with W. And so, being socially a little awkward, I’ve always found attending them to be rather overwhelming. But now I’m growing into them, and I’m finding myself more able to observe and sit without feeling like an intruder, even if I don’t do well at talking to random strangers, or even (especially) people I vaguely know.

Anyway, I’m increasingly noticing the different characters which different cons exhibit. At Eastercons I’ve been to, I’ve found a very traditional set of attendees – white, older and mostly men (the women also often wear velvet skirts and many bangles). The panels have often been less academic, and certainly haven’t really focused on social and community issues. At NineWorlds, however, the basic MO is inclusivity – there’s a communication preferences system for letting people know if you want to chat or not, pronoun badges are available, and, this year at least, the programme was full of items which directly dealt with race, gender and sexuality in SF&F – though not disability, which I found to be an interesting omission. I’m pleased to have a politically engaged con in the landscape, even if the politics was at times a little overwhelming, and the track organisation, to my mind, inexpertly handled in terms of timetabling and likely clashes.

The politics came to the fore in the best possible way at a panel we attended on Saturday afternoon: ‘The Fantasy of White History: Race and Racism in Historically Based Fiction’. Panel discussions done badly are so depressing – and sadly, this is what I’ve most often seen at cons. Fortunately, in this case the situation was entirely different. The panellists – Zen Cho, Georgina Jackson-Callen, Meg Jayanth and Jade Fernandez – really sparked well with each other, the conversation going on without awkwardness or lags in interest for the whole hour and fifteen minutes. I was reminded once again of the importance of a.) being an active ally to those typically underrepresented or marginalised in fandom, and in every aspect of life and b.) of intersectionality – that we cannot understand experiences and systems of oppression in singularities, but as elements interacting on multiple axes. Given that I plan to read Mies and Shiva’s Ecofeminism soon, this is an important concept to remember.

Though this panel was chewy and dense, I found this lacked across a number of the other discussions I attended. Whilst I enjoyed the concepts of a lot of them, it does sadden me that a need for mass appeal can often result in ‘101 sessions’ – surface level, limited explorations of subjects and skill sets. I felt this particularly in the criticism workshop – whilst the critics had really interesting things to say, and though they were enjoyable to listen to, if I’d wanted to listen just to their ideas on the stories we read, I’d have read their journalism. What I wanted, I think, was a nuts and bolts account of the practical skills of criticism – not an anecdotal, indulgent exploration of existing experience.

One paper which did offer a fantastic, dense discussion of its topic, however, was Vanessa Thompsett’s ‘Dystopian London in Fiction – The Unreal City’, which used 1984, Brave New World and V for Vendetta to explore how a real place can be transformed into a dystopia. I’m fascinated by the relationship of place to fiction, and Thompsett really showed the importance of this well, using concepts of psychogeography in her discussion. It got me thinking, though, about regionality in science fiction in particular. I’ve seen a lot of regionally based fantasy – I’m a huge fan of Jenny Nimmo and Alan Garner, and being in Leicester, how could I miss Rod Duncan or Graham Joyce? But where are the British regions in SF? If anyone wants to point me in the direction of SF stories and books set in the non-London parts of the UK, please do, especially anything based in the Midlands. Otherwise I’m going to start writing Brummie hard SF. And that’s a threat, not a promise.

Something I really loved about LonCon3 was the dealer and art stalls. Of course, given the scale and budget of LonCon, expecting anything like that from other cons is just setting myself up for disappointment. But NineWorlds did leave me quite disappointed even compared to other, non LonCon cons. Only two stalls, Genki Gear and Forbidden Planet International were there all weekend, the rest of the stalls only appearing between 1000 and 1700 on Sunday (unfortunately my busiest day for panels). And they were primarily focused on shiny things – a preponderance of jewellery and yarn over indie publishers, second hand books, genuine memorabilia, and film, TV and music. It felt like aesthetic over substance – Skiffy as look and tribal self-expression rather than an experience of particular related media. A strange thing, this.

This all meant that there was a distinct lack of stuff to do outside of the panels. The games library, where you could borrow a huge selection of board games and play them, was an inspired idea, but if that was full, you were stuck sitting in one of the hotel’s overpriced bars, walking in the phenomenal engine-heat of Heathrow to Starbucks for bitter coffee, or picking through desultory fries at MaccieD’s. Maybe I should have made use of the Quiet Room. And the hotel was so damned shiny – and not in a good way. The black marble in the floor fell away into a visual void, and I nearly plummeted to my doom a few times.

My NineWorlds experience, then, was mixed. I met some lovely people and did see some interesting panels and presentations, but the programme wasn’t really written for me. And that’s OK – an ecosystem of cons is a good thing, and you can’t please everyone. But if next year sees a similar programme at the same venue, I probably won’t be going unless something really stands out. One irony I found – and it’s a sad one – is that despite the bursary they offer, a con at this location, and certainly this venue, can never be truly accessible, and that many people attending, including myself, were already privileged just by virtue of being able to attend. This is a difficult problem, and I don’t know how to resolve it. Neither do I wish to do any disservice to what the NineWorlds committee have done over the last three years in terms of inclusion – it’s been incredible. But the hole of financial difficulties and poverty is worth raising despite and because of it being difficult to fill. Maybe genre, which has done so much to help those who have felt marginalised in the mainstream, can step up and do something to help those in need – become a true literature of escape.

Ha. After all that, there I go, slathering on politics with a trowel

…And the way our differences combine…

When I first saw Star Trek, it was from behind a sofa. In the late 1980s, my Dad used to watch re-runs of The Original Series and then, when it first aired in 1987, The Next Generation. It used to terrify me, especially TOS: people would get shot, glow an eerie red, and then either die or vanish. Members of the crew were sent insane by incorporeal blobs of light, or have all the salt sucked out of them by a hose-mouthed creature posing as human. The planets were neon, the colours bright, and the stars were exciting places to explore*: so, despite my fear, I was fascinated.

One day, I looked out from behind the sofa during the title credits, and saw the surface of one of the planets billowing up and down. In that moment, I realised that the monsters were people in makeup, that the planets were models and sets, and that there was more to this show than the visceral horror I had hitherto experienced. I began to enjoy the comedy, the camaraderie and, as I grew up, the political, ethical and philosophical issues that the programme raised. The Voyage Home rapidly became my favourite of the films – and you can laugh at me all you want, because it is cheesy, and I know it. I watched it time and again as a rather sickly child, and even though I take it far less seriously now, and purse my lips at its cornier moments and creaky acting, I still love it. I love it because it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is: as the end of a trilogy which is essentially about the fact that the crew of the Enterprise will do anything for each other, it’s kind of perfect.

I used to hide my Trekkie status, despite the fact that I adored Deep Space Nine well into my teens, and was thrilled when Enterprise came out in my final year of secondary school (even though I’d sort of stopped regular viewing part way through Voyager). These days, however, I make no bones about it, and have been re-watching The Original Series with W and his family – who, mostly, sit on the Star Wars side of The Great Divide. Watching it again nearly 50 years after it first aired, and almost half that since I first watched it, I can appreciate the series in a whole new way.

Now I appreciate the fact that the first season of TOS had no idea what it as, or the phenomenon which it would turn into, and how, because of this, it was able to do and say the most unexpected and daring things. I can appreciate the calibre of writers who took part, such as Theodore Sturgeon, and how they were able to play with genres and forms – comedy (The Trouble with Tribbles), horror (The Enemy Within; Day of the Dove), drama (Amok Time), tragedy (City on the Edge of Forever; The Empath; The Conscience of the King), and even submarine thriller (Balance of Terror). I appreciate how a gawky, uncertain, ‘cerebral’ show grew into itself, and how the characters, lines, and quirks of the show became so recognisable that even people who are in no way into SF can identify them. I appreciate the emotional impact it had upon people, how they identified with, gained strength from and deeply cared about the characters and the actors who portrayed them. I appreciate how the cast, despite personal traumas and internal show conflict, managed to portray and make believable a sense of unity for nigh on forty years.

Yes, in some ways, “Wagon Train to the Stars” came imbued with a sense of cultural imperialism in the form of the Federation. Yes, at its worst, the relationship between humans and non-humans is dubious. However, these things notwithstanding, all the Star Trek crews – and in particular that of the NCC-1701 – show a world in which the differences in people’s backgrounds, politics, personalities and behaviours are recognised and accepted. A world where mistakes are forgiven, and where vulnerabilities and obsessions do not make you weaker, but allow bonds to grow. Some of that utopianism and endeavour exists in the personal lives of the actors: Nichols recruited female and minority personal for NASA, and has served on the Board of Governors for the National Space Society; Takei is an LGBT campaigner and patron of the Japanese American National Museum; Koenig is associated with humanitarian work in Burma. And of course, many of the actors have helped – and even saved – some fans on an individual level, inspiring them to go onto careers in science and engineering.

From Star Trek, I learned that the universe contained a vast array of possibilities: Kol-Ut-Shan, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.

Dedicated the The Original Crew, living and dead, and in particular to Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015.

* I used to pretend that I was sitting somewhere on the Bridge, whilst watching the Starfield Simulation Screensaver.