In his history of the genre, Brian Aldiss suggests that most SF is what he calls ‘prodromic’: we must read it less as a prophecy of the future than as symptomatic of the present. By this rule 1984 will be 36 years out of date when we get there. A commoner view (on which Aldiss is naturally not so keen) holds that SF, like the Western, is an exclusively American line of fiction in which dabbling Europeans can easily make fools of themselves. Both generalisations survive a reading of Brave Old World. Curval, it would seem, is the leader of French SF. This novel, entitled Cette Chère Humanité, won the Prix Apollo in 1976. In France, ‘Curval’s name is as well-known as Frank Herbert’s in America or Michael Moorcock’s in Britain.’
Brave Old World transports us to ‘Marcom’ – the EEC as it will have developed in the late 21st century. Britain is apparently still in. But since the whole action takes place where France used to be, we are not yet the centre of things. Marcom, the reader must strain to believe, has effected a ‘closure’, sealing itself behind impenetrable neuro-defence barriers. There is no radio contact. ‘Visual distorter shields’ (when Curval wants an invention he invents it) prevent aerial reconnaissance by an understandably curious outside world.
Behind their Maginot, Marcom’s population are ethnically homogenised. They acquire whatever the consumer’s heart desires with universal credit cards. Many have become trivial hobbyists, collecting pea-cans or camembert boxes of the 20th century; the spirit of Jeux sans Frontières has infected the whole cultural organism. Everything is regulated. Citizens are obliged to bathe every day: if they don’t, the pollution patrol picks them up. ‘Walking permits’ are required. And lest the dutiful pedestrian fall off the kerb (whose elevation is strictly controlled) he must wear crash helmet, neck-protector and knee-guards. The community is governed by an anonymous council of bureaucrats. For the population at large there are two main pastimes. They can luxuriate in the Slow Time cabins (a French invention), where experience is decelerated; or they can trip with the Dream Diviners. Oneiromancy is frowned on, however, since it doesn’t yield a profit.
The plot of Brave Old World is a peg on which to hang this ponderously satirical vision. A spy from Devna (the developing nations) penetrates the frontier defences. Unable to resist the obvious, Curval makes him Algerian – the last of the illegal immigrants. There is a tangle of subsequent plotting and sub-plotting in which everything is rendered hammeringly meaningful. A ruler, for instance, is abducted by filth cultists and raped in sewage by the cloacal Sylvie Le Cloec’h while others of the gang piddle on them. When he has a tremendous orgasm we know the aseptic, bath-a-day Marcom is doomed. Technology and bureaucracy are, of course, finally defeated. Marcom disappears, like the fabled bird, up one of its own Slow Time cabins. A heroic band escapes to the real world outside.
On April Fool’s day, the BBC ran a spoof news story, in which it was alleged that Brussels had issued strict regulations as to the tread legally required on Community footwear. Three minutes of this jest seemed about right: 250 pages of Curval’s dystopia gives the reader some awful premonition of what life in the Slow Time cabin will be like.
The Insider is set in the nearer future; seats for the new Spielberg film, for instance, only cost £15. Our England, beaten out of Ulster, has sulkily withdrawn into isolationism and is on the brink of National Front (‘Unity Party’) takeover. Politics is dominated by a rabble-rousing demagogue, fond of referring to the Tiber, whose programme is withdrawal from the EEC (so much for Curval) and compulsory repatriation of ‘aliens’. He is not called Enoch Powell. The SPG has just been enlarged to regimental strength. The outgoing Tory government has denationalised the Health Service. England are doing badly in the Test series against South Africa.
The insider of the title is an outsider – an alien. He came from outer space during the Blitz. He (‘it’, one should say) has the power of apostolic self-perpetuation: if he can touch a human in his dying moments, he will migrate, displacing his host’s personality. His first incarnation is spent in the body of a boy orphaned by the London bombs. He (‘they’? – SF can pose irritating pronominal problems) grows up a cold-eyed novelist, a writing machine. True to his origin, he remains alienated, not much liking the human race and deducing from the circumstances of his arrival that they may all be mad. Annoyingly, he cannot remember the details of his pre-human existence; nor can he escape his prison of humanity. At the moment of death, he is sitting on a park bench, and performs his metempsychosis trick on a nearby management consultant. But this property is not, like the former, vacant. He inherits habits like smoking and opinions like socialism that are not to be eradicated. His new host has a wife who is Indian – herself alien by current political definition. There is a daughter who turns out to be having a lesbian affair with the next dictator of Britain. She is punitively raped by party members. When the same thugs attack ‘his’ wife, the alien has a go, and is shot. His dying affirmation is not to migrate: he accepts the human lot in an extra-terrestrial spirit of dulce et decorum est.
In unambitious SF, aliens tend to be diabolically nasty, as in Alien itself, or deistically nice, as in Spielberg’s Close Encounters. Evans’s visitor is, in the repertoire of SF gimmickry, a ‘body-snatcher’. These are traditionally unpleasant and very sneaky. It’s a pleasing twist to devise a parasite with conscience and not too good at looking after number one. His education from a mere novelistic observation of life to heroic participation follows a conventionally satisfying design. There is also the teasing possibility that the hero may just be a schizophrenic homo sapiens. All this makes for a novel which is undoubtedly successful by the lights of the genre. But I think that Evans could make a migration himself into straight fiction. SF formulae permit him too easy solutions. How create a man without qualities? Import him from another galaxy. How deal with current tension between indigenous and ‘alien’ population? Invent a pessimistic dystopia. It is this dangerous facility that Raymond Williams refers to when he terms SF ‘liberated and promiscuous’. Its profundities are too painlessly arrived at.
With Genetha, Roy Heath completes his Guyana trilogy following the fortunes of the Armstrong family to their dismal conclusion. The first volume, From the Heat of the Day, was set in the 1920s. Gladys married her postmaster; he cheated his sister out of her house so that they might move up in the world to Georgetown. For a short while, the Armstrongs rode high. The sewing machine was sold and a servant taken on. With her unfair dismissal the downfall began. Armstrong lost his job in the world slump – for him, concentrated in a buff OHMS notice of dismissal. Gladys died, malnourished, overworked and worn out with child-bearing.
The second volume, One Generation, found Armstrong a rum-soaked pensioner. The son Rohan was now the civil servant in the family. But hopeless desire for a married East Indian woman lures him to a job in the country and eventual murder by a vengeful shotgun in the bush. Genetha returns the chronicle to Georgetown and the daughter. Started decently in life as a typist, Genetha degrades herself to become the ‘reputed wife’ of a poolroom wastrel, ‘Fingers’. True to his name, he thieves her out of the house her father thieved before her. Betrayed by her lover, shattered by her brother’s and father’s deaths, Genetha goes to pieces. She is disowned by her family, cannot hold even menial jobs, has a terrible interlude in the New Amsterdam lunatic asylum and hits rock-bottom as a drunken whore.
Resurgence from these depths takes an odd form. Genetha seduces a Catholic priest. Patriarchy’s malign influence exorcised, she revives and takes up with Esther, the former servant, who now runs a very orderly house of prostitution. The epilogue jumps twenty years to find the heroine snoozing on the porch at dawn, serenely awaiting death. She has survived as one of the old biddies who give stability to the flux of West Indian town life.
The Armstrongs live, as George Eliot would say, below the level of tragedy. Their existence would seem to be only a little more momentous than those of the million small creatures of the river and its mud, on whose uncelebrated births and unmourned deaths Genetha sometimes muses. Socially, the family occupies a socket where the Guyanan middle class ought to be. They have professional capacities and – except when drunk or excited – speak English, not patois. But there is no aspidistra-flying class in Georgetown. There is no society to climb, only a precarious foothold above the pauper’s ward and the immutable savagery of the up-country Indians. The Armstrongs are not even an extended family; there is no kinship net for Genetha to fall into. Nor are they nuclear: what should be the nucleus of the family, the house, comes and goes with whoever is the most adept swindler.
The three principal characters of the trilogy are racked by passions whose unchannelled force can only destroy them. They have no sense of history, no religion, no tradition, no myth, no poetry to sustain them. Genetha, the most intelligent and sensitive, can only aspire to a consciousness of her own impercipience: ‘She recalled the conversation of one of her father’s acquaintances, an assistant to a land surveyor whose job it was to cut survey lines in the jungle. He often talked of his experience in the forest, of being unable to see further than a few yards above his head where most of the army of animals lived, and even farther above where the eagles soared.’
A main problem for the West Indian novelist, according to Kenneth Ramchand, is how to handle the ‘language of the master’ – the white predecessor who stands ambivalently as former slave-owner and literary source. Heath’s method is to thin his style to a minimum, owing the least possible debt. At times this is overdone, and the narrative reads as bleakly as statistics or genealogy. Taken as the whole it now represents, however, this trilogy can be seen as an important achievement.
Somalian novels are rare birds in this country, and the sardines of Nuruddin Farah’s title are a group of contemporary Mogadishu ‘priviligentsia’. What cramps their cosmopolitan style is the police state in which they live (tyrannised over by an unnamed ‘General’) and the tribal traditions of a recent feudal past. They are, however, sardines, not martyrs. The novel takes as its epigraph Ho Chi Minh’s ironic
Being chained is a luxury.
The chained have somewhere to sleep
The unchained have not.
Medina has thrown off the chains of marriage and deserted her husband, taking her eight-year-old daughter with her. He is a well-meaning, time-serving politician, feebly hoping to ‘humanise’ the regime he serves. She is a tough, Westernised journalist. There are two explanations for her leaving. One is that she intends to write a book critical of the General (for the same reason, she has withdrawn her daughter from the school where she will only learn 99 ways of praising the father of the revolution). The second is that she will not have her daughter circumcised by another dictator, her mother-in-law:
‘If they mutilate you at eight or nine, they open you up with a rusty knife the night they marry you off; then you are cut open and re-stitched. Life for a circumcised woman is a series of deflowering pains, delivery pains and re-stitching pains. I want to spare my daughter these and many other pains. She will not be circumcised.’
Nothing much happens in the novel beyond the tracing of various tensions and frustrations. It ends with a minor purge. The husband is disgraced, beaten up and reconciled with his wife. There are deportations and possibly executions to come. The General remains, remote and patriarchally irremovable. Circumcision goes on, but perhaps Medina’s daughter will be spared.