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Number9Dream by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2001, 428 p.

Number9Dream cover

The difficult second novel. In his, Mitchell seems to have taken the decision to throw any number of things at the wall to see what might stick. It has its moments certainly but while being easy enough to follow on the level of the prose is not quite a straightforward read. It is told in nine sections; Panopticon, Lost Property, Video Games, Reclaimed Land, Study of Tales, Kaiten, Cards, The Language of Mountains is Rain.

The thread it hangs on is the search by Eiji Miyake for his father, who abandoned his mistress, mother to Eiji and his sister Anju, when they were young. Eiji has come to Tokyo from the sticks (an island called Kagoshima) to make himself known. We first find him in a café opposite the PanOpticon building waiting to meet his father’s lawyer, Akiko Katō, an encounter he fantasises about several times. The shifting ground of the novel starts here. From that point on the reader can never be entirely certain which of the incidents we are presented with are supposed to be occurring only within Eiji’s mind and which are meant to be “real”. But his burgeoning relationship with part-time waitress and proficient musician, Ai Imajō, the nape of whose neck is perfect, does give something to grab on to.

We follow the ups and downs of Eiji’s search, through an unfruitful meeting with Ms Katō, another with an ageing admiral from whom he learns his father’s family name is Tsukiyama, and also with his father’s wife and daughter, not to mention his falling into the orbit of the Yakuza and out again. His motives aren’t mercenary. But others find that difficult to believe.

I must say I’ve read a fair bit of Japanese fiction and the characters here – Yakuza perhaps aside, but gangsters are gangsters the world over – don’t follow the behaviour, or speech, patterns of those in books written by Japanese authors. When Mitchell returned to Japan, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it was to the country well before its opening to the West, in Napoleonic times, and his Japanese characters seemed to me to behave as such.

You could call Mitchell’s approach playfulness. Or you could call it irritating. At one point Eiji is hiding out from the Yakuza in a house where a novel’s manuscript is lying about. He of course reads it and so we are given extracts. Its main characters are called Goatwriter (himself a writer,) Mrs Comb (one of those “comedy” earthy charlady types with non-received pronunciation,) and Pithecanthropus. Here we are vouchsafed the information that due to a gentleman’s agreement soldiers never fight each other – “They might get hurt,” – and that, “The purpose of war is to kill as many civilians as possible.’” Also, “‘Writing is not about ‘fulfilment!’ Writing is about adoration! Glamour! Awards!’ …. ‘I learned the language of writers, ‘coda’ and ‘conceit’ for ‘ending’ and ‘idea’; ‘tour de force’ instead of ‘the good bit’; ‘cult classic’ instead of ‘this rubbish will never sell’.” This is a novel wherein is made literal the sentence, “Goatwriter’s words stuck in his throat,” and contains the line, “‘A stream of consciousness’ he rejoyced.” All well and good, but it seems more designed to show off the author’s facility with word-play rather than advance either the plot or knowledge of human relationships.

In Number9Dream Mitchell seems to have pushed his conceits as far as he thought he could get away with. (And possibly beyond.) Still, I’d never thought to see the word zwitterion in a literary novel; hats off to that.

Episodes of seriousness do intrude. A Yakuza tells Eiji that straight citizens of Japan are all living in a movie set. “A show is run from the wings, not centre stage. …… In most places the muscle is at the beck and call of the masters. In Japan, we, the muscle, are the masters. Japan is our gig.’”

A hint that this may be considered an altered history comes in an entry in an exquisitely written, intriguing, realistically toned journal supposedly from 1944 of a Tsukiyama ancestor who was a pilot on the kaiten project (the submarine equivalent of the kamikaze) which makes reference to someone who threw himself under a Russian tank with a bomb and also mentions stories of the Soviets’ cruelty in Manchūkuo. In our world the Soviets didn’t declare war on Japan till after Hitler was defeated in 1945. But in a work such as this where so much is invention in the narrator’s mind this could be another example. On the other hand it could simply be a mistake by Mitchell. There is not much solid ground to hang on to here. This is particularly so when, within the ‘present day’ span of the book a huge earthquake strikes the Tokyo area. This, of course, has not happened in the reader’s time-line.

To back this up, towards the end of the book a truck-driver says to Eiji, “‘Trust what you dream. Not what you think,’” and an old woman tells him, “‘Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the never-will-be may walk amid the still-are,’” which could be Mitchell describing his methods. Later we are told, ‘A dream is a fusion of spirit and matter.’

It turns out Eiji’s favourite John Lennon song is #9Dream “‘It should be considered a masterpiece.’” He fantasises a meeting where Lennon says it’s a descendant of Norwegian Wood. Both are ghost stories. The title means “the ninth dream begins after every ending.”

In a variation of the man stepping into the same river some time later conundrum Eiji thinks, “A book you read is not the same book as before you read it. Maybe a girl you sleep with is not the same girl you went to bed with.” Is this taking philosophical speculation too far?

If you were counting earlier there were only eight named sections. The ninth is untitled and contains solely a blank page. Presumably the dream.

Which only leaves the question, is Number9Dream a ‘tour de force’ or perhaps a ‘cult classic’?

Pedant’s corner:- not every often (very often.) “An aviary of telephones trill” (An aviary trills.) A missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) vocal chords (vocal cords.) “‘What would me pictures be doing there??’” (my pictures,) soccer (it’s football,) “the twelve-yard box” (no such thing in football. Penalty box, or eighteen yard box at a pinch,) Eiji scores a goal direct from a goal-kick (that wouldn’t count, goal kicks are indirect free-kicks,) “the enemy goalposts …. enemy player(s)” (the opposition goalposts …. opponent(s).) “A queue of the hippest people wait outside” (a queue waits.) “Daaimon tells the girls a long story … that make the girls shriek with laughter” (tells a story that makes the girls shriek,) hiccoughs (hiccups; it’s not any kind of cough,) “we are in miniature planetarium” (a miniature planetarium,) “and flashes and enamel smile” (an enamel smile.) “A garage band rehearse” (a band rehearses.) “Inside are a whole row of” (is a whole row,) “‘And will his trousers needing pressing’” (need.) “The string section bask in the applause” (the string section basks.) “The clatter and glitter of cascading silver balls hypnotize the ranks of drones” (the clatter and glitter hypnotizes.) “The crowd drain away” (the crowd drains away,) eidelweiss (edelweiss,) “he tobaggoned down the crater” (tobogganed.) “How do you write a letter a real private detective?” (to a real private detective,) “with an cane” (a cane.) “A coven of wives blowhole laughter” (a coven blowholes laughter.) “None of are eager to” (None of us is eager to,) “life-sized statute” (statue,) “I saw than Shiomi’s eyes” (that,) military bace (base,) “we all knew knew” (omit a “knew”.) “He neck is” (his neck,) “a crowd of very busy people surge in” (a crowd surges in,) “‘people use to build Tokyo’” (used to,) vortexes (vortices.) “One set of hands frisk me while another set holds my arms” (note that failure of subject to agree with verb in the first clause with no such failure in the second clause; it ought to be ‘one set frisks me’,) “the three men also sat at the card table” (the three men seated at, or sitting at,) “wracked with relief and guilt” (racked,) “handwriting is an clear as malice” (is as clear,) “the enemy are tracking me” (the enemy is tracking me.) “A row of men in uniforms occupy the urinals” (a row of men occupies the urinals.)

Scotland Qualifies for World Cup

No this is not a headline from a science-fictional Altered History.

Scotland’s football team really has qualified for a World Cup finals.

Scotland women, that is – a historic first for them. Congratulations to the team and management.

So we can now definitively say Scotland’s women are better than its men.

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

Illustrated by Pat Marriott.

Vintage, 2012, 290 p.

 Black Hearts in Battersea cover

This is a sequel of sorts to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. However it does not follow the fortunes of the two main characters from that book but rather those of their friend Simon. He has received a message from Dr Field containing an invitation to take up a place at a school of drawing in London and to lodge in the same house as himself. However, when Simon reaches Rose Alley no-one admits to knowing the Doctor. He was first met there by Dido Twite, a perky child, though neglected by her parents. It soon becomes apparent that underhand activities are taking place in the house. Mr Twite sings Hanoverian songs (in this setting the Stuarts were never displaced from the British throne that second time) and Simon inadvertently stumbles on a stash of guns in the basement.

In the meantime Simon has enrolled in the Art School and encountered Justin, the heir to the Dukedom of Battersea, and a very poor artist, despite artistic ability running in the family. Also in Simon’s orbit is Sophie, his friend from the orphanage back home, who is now the Duchess’s lady’s maid. The Duke is an eccentric who befriends Simon through the medium of chess and asks him to clean one of his paintings. This, it turns out, has a representation of a Battersea ancestor to whom both Sophie and Simon bear a strong resemblance. It is immediately obvious where this is going and Aiken does not disappoint. In its working out, as befits a YA novel, we have breathless incident galore – a fire in a box at the opera, a sinking barge, shanghaiing, hot–air balloons, possibly poisoned mince pies, a gunpowder plot – before the villains are unmasked and the world brought to rights. (Well, most of it.) The characters are necessarily broad-brush but recognisable human types nevertheless. Yet quite why a putative James III (even if he would have been the eighth King of Scotland of that name) would be described as a Scottish gentleman, have a Scottish accent and speech patterns is beyond me. He would have been brought up as an English gentleman.

The book is slightly marred by its illustrations being misplaced so that they often occur just before the incident which they depict but it is all good fun.

Pedant’s corner:- “to show this good intentions” (his,) hoboy (hautboy. I suppose the spelling “hoboy” may have been adopted to avoid flummoxing Aiken’s younger readers but it is still wrong,) a missing full stop, topsy-turvey (topsy-turvy,) “the whole party were in charity with one another (the whole party was,) knit (knitted.)

Philip Roth

I heard on the radio news this morning that Philip Roth has died.

I must confess I have not read much of his work, apart from the (ahem) seminal Portnoy’s Complaint – which I was moved to sample partly because of the attention it received – and My Life as a Man which covered much the same ground. Anything you ever wanted know about living as a young(ish) male Jew in the USA was here.

I do remember being intrigued by a long ago television programme about him which featured, as I recall, his creation Nathan Zuckerman fantasising about Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust and making a new anonymous life for herself in (I think) the US, which may have been another spur to reading him.

I can’t say I much took to what seemed from the evidence of those two books to be his perennial subject matter but he was obviously an important US novelist of the second half of the twentieth century whether I favoured his work or not and his ability as a writer shone through in any case.

Much Later I read his Altered History novel The Plot Against America which I reviewed on this blog here. The impulse behind his decision to write it was admirable – and arguably necessary – but I felt that overall it was an opportunity missed, that the punches the book threw were somewhat pulled.

Sadly that impulse might be even more necessary in today’s political climate than it was when he published it thirteen years ago.

Philip Milton Roth: 19/3/1933 – 22/5/2018. So it goes.

Roads Not Taken edited by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt

Tales of Alternate History, Del Rey, 1998, 332 p plus iv p What is Alternate History? by Shelly Shapiro.

Roads Not Taken cover

The question in that What is Alternate History? introduction is surely superfluous to anyone with an interest in buying this book.

As someone with an interest in both history and SF I’m obviously a pushover for counterfactual histories like the ones collected here. None of the stories (which are all by men I note) here deal with the big what-ifs like different outcomes to the US Civil War or Second World War but instead examine smaller turning points with subtler ramifications. The quality of the writing is variable but all hold the attention.
Must and Shall1 by Harry Turtledove sees Lincoln shot in a Confederate attack on Washington DC so that many years later the former Confederate States are still ruled by a much resented military occupation and aching to rebel.
An Outpost of the Empire2 is one of Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna stories. Here a new Roman pro-consul comes to Venetia – once of the recently defeated Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Greek aristocrat Eudoxia despises him yet has to be accommodating. The plot could be described as Pride and Prejudice in togas even though Silverberg undercuts it with his last sentence.
In We Could Do Worse by Gregory Benford we are under Joe McCarthy’s Presidency as Nixon had delivered the 1950 California Republican Primary delegates to Taft who in turn nominated McCarthy as Vice-President. Taft died. The story illustrates the resulting authoritarianism and bending of rules to ensure McCarthy’s re-election, all in the name of anti-Communism. Sadly this strikes all too resonant a chord now than it would when it was first published in 1989.
Mike Resnick’s Over There3 sees Teddy Roosevelt make a nuisance of himself during the Great War by reconstituting his Rough Riders and taking them over to France where Pershing is under orders to keep him well away from the front.
Ink From the New Moon by A A Attanasio is narrated by a Chinese visitor to the New World – colonised from Asia much earlier than it was by Europeans in our time – and encounters Columbus.
Southpaw by Bruce McAllister follows Fidel Castro after his acceptance of the invitation to become a professional baseball player with the New York Giants. The story concerns his glancing contact with Cuban dissidents.
Greg Costikyan’s The West is Red4 has an impoverished capitalist USA has voting in a Communist President to implement the more efficient economics of centralist planning. Background events in the story bear some resemblance to Boris Yeltsin’s frustration of the old guard’s coup d’état in our world.
The longest story in the book, The Forest of Time5 by Michael J Flynn, examines the fate of a parallel worlds Jumper who is marooned in a North America where the thirteen original colonies never united and focuses on the responses of those who encounter him.
In Aristotle and the Gun6 by L Sprague de Camp a time traveller goes back to try to persuade Aristotle of the benefits of the Scientific Method, with, to him, unexpected results.
How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion by Gene Wolfe is not as apocalyptic as it sounds. The Second World War is a board game and the German invasion is by the “People’s Car”, a device outperformed due to Churchill’s knowledge of the properties of transistors.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Michaels’ (Michaels’s,) Morrie Harris’ (Morrie Harris’s,) New Orleans’ (New Orleans’s,) “gaping at naked women” (it’s usually gawping at,) Colquit Reynolds’ (Colquit Reynolds’s) 2In the introduction “Shadrack in the Furnace” (Shadrach.) 3”Bullets and cannonballs flew to the right and left” (cannonballs? In World War 1?) 4”would have own the Cold War” (would have won.) 5mowed down (mown.) “The argument in the cell reached a crescendo.” (No. It reached a climax,) Oschenfuss’ (Oschenfuss’s.) 6Nearchos’ (Nearchos’s,) Alexandros’ (Alexandros’s,) Zandras’ (Zandras’s,) Attalos’ (Attalos’s,) Herodotos’ (Herodotos’s.)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

Illustrated by Pat Marriott. Vintage, 2012, 227 p.

The book is an altered history set in an early Nineteenth Century England. There is a Channel Tunnel mentioned in a prefatory Note and wolves roam the countryside. Apart from two instances (where they variously attack a stationary train and chase the main characters) plus the odd howl from far off the wolves are mainly an off-stage menace though. It is clearly aimed at a YA – or even younger – audience.

Bonnie Green is the daughter of the grand house Willoughby Chase. Her cousin Sylvia is coming to visit as her carer, Aunt Jane, is getting on. Bonnie’s mother is ailing and requires a trip to help cure her, naturally accompanied by her husband. The first requirement of a children’s adventure, the absence of parents, is hereby secured. The governess hired to look after them, Miss Slighcarp, a supposed distant relative, is the usual wicked creature, not content with mistreating the pair but also intent on defrauding Bonnie of her inheritance with the assistance of the forger Mr Grimshaw. Much Dickensian harsh schooling ensues but the plucky pair escape with the help of Simon, a local boy who lives in the woods. They make their way to London to enlist the services of Mr Gripe, the estate’s lawyer.

It all rattles along (as YA novels have to) but this leaves little time for anything but sketching each character. Best read as a young person I would think.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, backboards (context demands “blackboards”.)

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

A sequel to The War of the Worlds.

Gollancz, 2017, 464 p.

 The Massacre of Mankind cover

This sequel to H G Wells’s War of the Worlds is authorised by the H G Wells estate and in it, of course, the Martians return to Earth. Since in our timeline they did not ever come in the first place that makes this book an altered history. To make it correspond with the original Baxter has to employ early twentieth century cosmology and speculation as part of his story, in particular the supposedly superpowerful civilisation inhabiting Jupiter’s cloud banks.

Our narrator is Julie Elphinstone, sister-in-law of the narrator of the earlier book. Elphinstone is a journalist (divorced from her husband) and at the start of the novel is working in New York. Britain is under an authoritarian regime, astronomy is banned to the general public – apparently worldwide – but of course everyone expects the Martians to invade again at the next opposition. Elphinstone is invited back to England to hear from her brother-in-law of their imminent arrival.

This time they come in greater force, have adapted their tactics and gained immunity from the microbes that did for them before. Britain’s armed forces, though better prepared, still fight the last war and the Martians swiftly gain a foothold and press their advantage. Two years later landings take place all around the world, allowing Baxter to set more scenes in the US, but much of the book is taken up with how people in England adjust to life under the gaze of the Martians and efforts to strike back against them. Elphinstone becomes an unwitting agent of the government in its attempts to defeat the Martians in the same old way but is instrumental in invoking the power of the Jovians to rebuff the Martians – or at least to make them retreat to the Arctic.

All the familiar Wellsian touches recur, the heat-ray, the red weed, the Martians’ desire for the blood of their conquered foes. (I know this adds to the horror – and Baxter adds in some gruesome scenes to illustrate it – but it is extremely unlikely that human blood rather than flesh could be a prime food source. I find excessive harping on the efficacy of blood in magic rituals and the like, as here, risible.) Baxter makes more of the Cythrereans the Martians have brought from Venus than I remember Wells doing. A strange inconsistency was that despite the Martians targeting motorised transport it is still used later under their eyes.

Baxter’s use of a female narrator is, of course, a reflection of our times rather than Wells’s. In this regard the inclusion of the strongish female character Verity Bliss (who might once have been introduced solely as a love interest for Elphinstone’s former husband Frank Jenkins but actually has much more agency than that) is another nod to the twenty-first century. Baxter also references things about which Wells would have been ignorant, like the Schlieffen War – in the book still raging between the Empires of Germany and Russia – Craiglockhart Hospital, Porton Down, Stapledon, and Ataturk as an Ottoman representative. He has a certain RFC Lieutenant, William Leefe Robinson kill a Martian in an air attack on one of their machines and mentions Wells as the Year Million Man.

But I’m struggling to see the point. Did we need a sequel to War of the Worlds? Does it really tell us anything about ourselves now? Or is it about present day fears? As an illustration of the ills that plague us in Britain – and the Western world in general – I would have thought a story about unfeeling monied zombies bleeding us dry would be much more apposite.

I don’t blame Baxter for taking the project on; it’s an open goal after all and he does accomplish it rather well. And I suppose it’s entertaining enough.

Pedant’s corner:- I read an ARC (proof) so some of these may have been corrected in the final publication. Practise (as a noun, so practice,) “‘I am aware have called some of you’” (I am aware I have called some of you.) “Even the privileged few like myself who had advance warning of the new invasion, this coldly stated news, the reality officially confirmed, came as a dreadful shock.” (Even to the privileged few,) “meant for a comparative trickle commuting clerks,” (of commuting clerks.) “Frank already had an intuition that the percentage of survivors would be small, that the wounded they encountered from the periphery of the infall,” (that the wounded they encountered came from the periphery of the infall,) “Frank said as determinedly as we could” (as he could.) “‘But he’s had no time for his precious fishing that since he was called up for the reserves’” (no “that” required,) “as he was.,” (has an extraneous comma,) “my sister-in-had” (my sister-in-law had,) “the thousand-strong crew .” (should have no space between crew and the full stop,) scuttlebutt (a USian term, so an unlikely usage on a British warship in the 1920s,) Jenkins’ (Jenkins’s, which appears four lines later!) “the contents of the their kit-bags” (of their kit-bags,) “mirroring my own side by riddled with detail,” (mirroring my own side in being riddled with detail,) Ted Land (elsewhere always Ted Lane,) “‘That looks it came off a sewer.’” (That looks as if – or, That looks like – it came off a sewer’) “the next I remember I was lying in on green grass” (no “in”,) “sat on a low twig” (seated or sitting, but since it was a yellowhammer perhaps perched,) “‘I can always use an enthusiastic NCO’” (the British usage is “I could always do with an enthusiastic NCO”,) “supplies of antibiotics” (in the 1920s?) fit (fitted,) “we newcomers were been invited” (were invited; or, had been invited,) priel (prial,) an extraneous open quote mark, Chapter 23’s number and title were not in the larger font size of all the others, ”he based had his calculations” (he had based his calculations.) “Even now it’s hard to recall now” (has an extraneous now,) “”adjusting their positions, And Cherie saw them” (a full stop after positions or no capital A at and,) “from the gitgo” (isn’t it getgo?) “where the fires where” (where the fires were,) “had so nearly had befallen” (has one had too many.) “Straight after the Second War he plunged straight into the Basra conferences” (two straights in eight words.) “‘And he’s as careless of his health as ever he is,’” (as ever he was,) the earth (the Earth, many instances.)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Fleet, 2016, 373 p (plus an additional 16 pages extract of Colson’s first novel, none of which I read.)

 The Underground Railroad cover

Even if this was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2017 I might not have got round to it for some while had it not also won this year’s Clarke Award (- not to mention the shadow Clarke Award.).

The main viewpoint character, Cora, is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, whose grandmother bequeathed (informally of course) to her descendants a small patch of ground in the slave quarters on which she grew scrubby vegetables. Cora’s mother ran away when she was small – the only runaway from the plantation not to be recaptured – and Cora tries to defend the patch as best she can, before she is pushed out to the Hob (a kind of depository for the less fortunate slaves.) This demonstration of the hierarchy that existed within the slave community is one of the features of Whitehead’s book. While Cora lives on the relatively benign half of the plantation this benignity is still only relative. Whitehead does not go overboard on the indignities and horrors but nevertheless portrays slave life in all its wretchedness, yet he doesn’t skirt over the harshnesses they endure nor can themselves inflict. Cora is female: no more need be said. Things change when the Randall brother in charge of her half of the estate dies and the whole plantation becomes subject to the whims of Terrance Randall. When she steps in to absorb his blows on a slave boy he becomes her implacable enemy and so she accepts the offer of male slave Caesar, who has been in contact with the Underground Railroad, to escape with him. They do not make it to the Station without mishap and in a confrontation with a group of whites Cora, in order to evade capture has to kill one of them by striking his head with a stone. This makes her even more of a target for tracking down.

At the Station they descend below the cellar and come to a tunnel along the floor of which run two parallel steel lines. Thus is the metaphor of the organisation which helped runaway slaves, and gave Whitehead his title, made literal. This literalisation is the sort of thing Science Fiction does and I suppose is what allows the book to be classified as such (or, indeed, an Altered History) and thus eligible for the Clarke. In other respects though the story the book tells does not rely on this speculative element – could have been written without this device – and so would lie outside the boundaries of the genre. The book might not have received as much attention without this presence of steel and steam, though.

The main sections are titled for the various States in which Cora finds herself, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and “The North” while shorter chapters relate aspects of the lives of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, captured and enslaved in Africa; slave-catcher Ridgeway; an anatomist and “resurrectionist” called Stevens; Ethel, the wife of one of the Railroad’s agents; Cora’s escape companion Caesar; and the ironical fate of Cora’s mother.

Cora ponders the US Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident truth” that, “All men are created equal,” with the thought “unless we decide you are not a man.”

Set in the time and place it is there are of course frequent uses of the “n” word, which therefore appears in full in some later quotes here.

It is not just slave-catchers – and Ridgeway in particular – that Cora has to be wary of. In South Carolina she and Caesar find the authorities are collecting data about and performing medical procedures on the “coloured” – controlled sterilisation, research into communicable diseases by pretending to give treatment but really allowing the disease to run rampant, perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit – to protect “our women and daughters from their (the coloureds’) violent jungle urges” which was understood “to be a particular fear of southern white men.”

Whitehead tells us, “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. More slaves led to more cotton.” But more slaves represented a problem. “Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable: all those niggers.” North Carolina’s response was to advertise for Europeans to be indentured for a while to pick the cotton. “In effect they abolished slavery. On the contrary, Oney Garrison said in response. We abolished niggers.” Coloured men and women were banned from North Carolina soil on pain of death. Bodies of those unable to flee lined the so-called Freedom Trail for mile upon mile.

The resurrectionist anatomist reflects on the irony that, “when his classmates put their blades to a coloured cadaver, they did more for the cause of coloured advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

About the excesses of his fellow slave patrollers Ridgeway ruminates, “In another country they would have been criminals. But this was America.” And later, that justification of acquisition, “If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property. slave, or continent. The American imperative.” Later he tells Cora about the country they are travelling through after she is captured, “Settlers needed the land, and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless, Ridgeway said, they deserved what they got.” Ridgeway describes the American spirit, “to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”

Cora is freed from Ridgeway’s clutches and finds a temporary refuge in Indiana where a black speaker orates, “‘Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are. And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

On her first journey underground Cora was told, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” But, “It was a joke then from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”

All nations have their darker shadows. Slavery is the USA’s original (and in the form to which it evolved, racism, its besetting) sin. Whitehead shows how the patterns it produced were engrained, embedded by the “Peculiar Institution”. The Underground Railroad is extremely well-written, its characters far more than ciphers or types – and Whitehead gives due consideration to the views of the slave-holders – but the tale it tells seems, sadly, to be as relevant today as the organisation it was named for was all those years ago.

Pedant’s corner: a pile of ball and chains (balls and chains,) “The doctors were stealing her babies from her, not her former masters” (is ambiguous. “The doctors, and not her former masters, were stealing her babies from her,” would make it clearer,) forbid (forbade, x 3,) “Every town … held their Friday Festival” (its Friday Festival,) hung (hanged,) “the fire had eliminated the differences in their skin” (in their skins,) laying (lying,) “The two rifles turned to him” (on the previous page it had been “his pistol” and “A second man held a rifle,” so not two rifles then.)

Clarke Award Winner

This year’s winner is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I’ve not read but from what I’ve read about it seems to be an Altered History.

This verdict coincides with that of the Shadow Clarke jury over at the Anglian Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

One for the “to look out for” list.

Time Travel, Reviews, Hame and Rebellions

In an article in Saturday’s Guardian review, James Gleick examined the history of the time travel story since H G Wells more or less invented the form in The Time Machine. It was a skate over the subject really and veered into the territory of so-called Alternative History which of course I prefer to name Altered History but worth reading all the same.

In the same section of the paper was a review of Annalena McAfee’s new novel Hame. Many reviews are interesting, some make you think “definitely not”. Very few inspire you to go out and read the book concerned. Stuart Kelly’s did just that, as indeed did his review of Kevin MacNeil’s The Brilliant and Forever which I read a few months ago after also reading the same author’s A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde due to the same review. McAfee’s Hame sounds intriguing and possibly funny. Definitely one I’ll look for.

I recalled McAfee’s name. She had an article in the Guardian Review some weeks ago which I wished to post about then but at the time could not find on the Guardian website but which now pops up fourth when you search her name there. The article was about the relative importance of Robert Burns and the possible balefulness of his mythologising (Aside. Why does no-one ever question this about Shakespeare?) and the continuing battle over whether Scots is a suitable medium of expression for literature.

My take is if the author wishes to use Scots it is entirely up to her or him. It may reduce the psossible readership but that is a question for author and publisher, not reader. Myself, though not very well versed in it, my mother being the daughter of two English parents, thus hardly a native speaker and unable to expose me to its richness, I do not consider Scots – as some do – as necessarily inferior form to English. It is at times much more pithy.

I have a quibble with McAfee over a detail in that piece, though. She stated that Burns was born “two decades after the failed rebellion against the Union.” While Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Rebellion of 1745-6 was many things, not least the last flailing gasp of a failed dynasty, and the Battle of Culloden can even be considered as in some way (if you ignore its continuation into Ireland even into the twentieth century and possibly beyond,) the last of the Thirty Years War – though admittedly that was mostly fought out in German territories – it was not primarily against the Union. It was less general then that, more personal.

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