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The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Vintage, 2019, 574 p.

The Clarke Award (whose 2020 version this novel won) has a history of recognising, and sometimes rewarding, novels which are only marginally SF. At first sight this novel seems to be of that ilk – resolutely realist in tone, albeit with the occasional magic realist flourish, almost family saga in form (there is even a family tree facing the contents page,) while incorporating the history of Zambia and white colonialism in Southern Africa in its purview. Only in its later sections does it stray into SF territory and that in a way which non-SF readers may find jarring. To British eyes the text is a curious mixture of British – bum (as in backside,) maths – and US – fit as a past tense, swim lessons (swimming lessons,) mowed down (mown down) – usages, but there is also a generous sprinkling of Zambian words.

The novel is bookended by two short sections, The Falls – “The Smoke That Thunders” which David Livingstone of course immediately named after Queen Victoria – and The Dam (the Kariba Dam,) but the main body of the book is taken up by incidents in the lives of “The Grandmothers,” “The Mothers” and “The Children,” to each of whom a section, though not always exclusively, is devoted. (In The Falls we are told that Livingstone’s attendants transported his body to the coast – and thence to England – not out of devotion or duty to him, but rather from fear that otherwise his death would have been blamed on them. The explicit racism of European colonisers in Africa is expressed in some of the words used.) Intermissions between the sections, rendered in italics and occasionally commenting on the text, are written as if by anopheles mosquitoes. In one of these interludes we are told that “evolution forged the entirety of life using only one tool: the mistake…”

The Grandmothers are Sibilla, whose hair grows uncontrollably – all over her body, Agnes, a promising English tennis player who had to give up the game when she became blind and who falls in love with Ronald, a black student come to England from Rhodesia (as was,) and therefore has to run away from her racist parents in order to marry him, and Matha, one of the participants in Zambia’s unofficial space programme (an aspirational effort the concept of one individual, Ba Nkoloso, without any of the resources nor capability necessary to succeed.) Pregnant, and told Godfrey has left her, Matha begins to weep unceasingly, her eyelids crusting over with salt, an affliction which lasts the major part of her life thereafter.

Of the Mothers, Sylvia is Matha’s daughter by Godfrey, one of her fellow Afronauts, Isabella the result of Sibilla’s union with Federico, forced to flee Italy after killing his brother but usurping his identity, and Thandiwe marries Agnes’s son Lionel (who also impregnates Sylvia.) The Children are Joseph and Jacob (the ensuing sons of Lionel’s two unions) while Naila is the child of Isabella’s marriage to Balaji, a shopkeeper of Indian sub-continental origin. Sibilla’s children inherit her hair-growing condition – but only at twice the usual rate and only on their heads. This is transformed into a family wig-making enterprise known as Lovely Luxe Locks Ltd.

There is a nice exchange between Agnes and Ronald when he asks, “‘But I thought the English hated the French,’” and she replies, ‘Oh we do, but we steal from them mercilessly. It’s our sort of thing,’” a comment on the perennial position of women when we are told Matha thinks, “She had never imagined that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch,” and a rumination on the myths countries tell themselves, “This sort of thing happens with nations, and tales, and humans, and signs. You go hunting for a source, some ur-word or symbol and suddenly the path splits…. Where you sought an origin, you find a vast babble which is also a silence.” We also have Serpell’s variation on Tolstoy, “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.”

The main Science-Fictional ingredient in the tale is the Digit-All Bead, a kind of iPhone embedded in a finger which utilises the skin’s conductivity as a power source and shines its information onto the palm – or elsewhere if needed. This invention, since it appears in the book’s 2000s, makes The Old Drift an Altered History. Digit-All had been savvy in calling their product a bead rather than a chip as it sounds less threatening. They then partnered with local governments to distribute their beads free. Its connection to the internet makes it the ultimate surveillance tool. Another SF-ish element is Jacob’s development of lightweight microdrones – to all intents and purposes technological mosquitoes.

Hanging over the characters in the later sections is a pathogen only ever named as The Virus (which the reader will naturally take to be HIV but may not be. It does have HIV-like characteristics, though.) Lionel is researching a way to immunise against it and is particularly inteeested in people who seem to have natural immunity. Two human mutations are likely candidates. The person he calls the Lusaka patient has both. Serpell compares the Virus’s modus operandi – infiltrating the immune system’s white blood cells (usually the body’s defenders) to reproduce itself – to its main means of transmission, sex, “it takes advantage of the two engines of life – the desire to reproduce and the will to persevere.”

Serpell undoubtedly can write and has an eye for the variety of human relationships. I am not entirely convinced, though, that the later sections and the novel’s conversion into a subdued kind of technological thriller really belong together with the earlier character-based narratives but as an attempt to render the (relatively) recent history of Zambia in fictional form by focusing on the lives of individuals The Old Drift is still a formidable achievement. I have no doubt that it will linger in my mind.

Pedant’s corner:- “The hair on her crown and face were the same” (was the same,) sprung (sprang,) “irked Agnes to no end” (irked Agnes no end; ‘to no end’ means without purpose, ‘no end’ means without limit,) Cadbury Whole Nut (in Britain it always used to be “Cadbury’s” but I note that they have recently dropped the apostrophe and its ‘s’,) Walkers shortbread (Walker’s,) “to secret her to Kasama” (that’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘secret’ as a verb, it appeared as such once more,) wracked (racked,) stunk (stank,) “because was it was” (one ‘was’ too many,) grills (grilles,) “turning those minuses into plusses” (‘pluses’; and in any case why put a double ‘s’ in plusses but not in minusses?)

Clarke Award 2020

I seem to be a few months late in noticing this. I couldn’t have been looking hard enough, though I posted the shortlist here.

The winner was The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell.

It’s on my tbr pile. I’ll probably shift it up the list now.

Arthur C. Clarke Award: This Year’s Nominees

The shortlist for the 34th Arthur C. Clarke Award is:

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

I had been looking for the list for a while but not for the first time discovered it had finally been announced via Ian Sales’s blog.

I reveiwed the Charlie Jane Anders book for Interzone 282 and published that review here on 28/5/20.

The Martine and Serpell I had seen good reviews of. The works of Hurley I have read tend to wallow in violence which I find off-putting. I’ve only read Tchaikovsky’s two Children of Time novels. They were OK but no more. Wellington is new to me (and Ian Sales doesn’t think much of his book.)

Body of Glass by Marge Piercy

Penguin, 1992, 590 p.

Body of Glass cover

In a post-environmental disaster, post-nuclear war world dominated by commercial multis Shira Shipman has returned to her domed home of Tikva after Y-S, the multi she worked for, awarded custody of her son, Ari, to her husband. In Tikva she finds that Avram has created a(n illegal) cyborg, Yod, named for the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (He – Piercy depicts Yod as male and to all intents and purposes fully human – has had nine less successful predecessors.) Shira’s grandmother Malkah has helped Avram to construct Yod’s persona as the previous efforts had lacked, for want of a better word, humanity. Complicating Shira’s return is the presence of Avram’s son, Gadi, Shira’s first lover and a producer of computer generated entertainment, but who is constitutionally incapable of keeping himself to one woman. There is an ongoing effort to keep Yod’s nature secret within Tikva, always under threat of attack by information pirates, and to prevent Y-S from gaining control of him for itself.

Paralleling this narrative and taking up one out of every three of the book’s chapters we are treated to the story of the golem of Prague (called Joseph,) created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Prague ghetto’s inhabitants from their gentile neighbours. This is presented as if Malkah is telling it to Yod and is interesting enough but is really meant as a counterpoint to Tikva’s situation – though there are perhaps too many similarities between the two strands of the book (the would-be independent woman in Prague, Chava, is what Malkah considers herself to be) – and also to act as an illustration of the struggle against the perennial prejudice Jewish people have suffered throughout history. The inhabitants of Tikva seem all to be Jews but that is more or less incidental to the plot in those sections, whereas in Prague it is the central consideration.

The contest between Shira and Y-S for custody of Ari and of Tikva with Y-S makes up the meat of the plot and provides most of the science-fictional interest – she and Yod themselves undertake what is in effect a cyber attack on Y-S, very William Gibson – but these are in many ways the least satisfying aspects of the novel as Piercy is considering what it might mean to be Jewish (Jewish words and customs are liberally sprinkled through both strands) and, in the characters of Yod and Joseph, interrogating what it means to be human. While Joseph and Chava do not, Yod and Shira become close and eventually lovers. Yod is of course more accomplished than either Gadi or Shira’s husband ever were – or could be. In one of their conversations Shira tells Yod telepathy is a prominent human fantasy – usually of women, who wish they could understand what men want and tell men what they want. Not that their relationship, and that of Shira with Malkah, is without complication. This is a fully fleshed out narrative, more intricate than I have room to set down here. It’s easy to see why it won the Clarke Award in 1993.

I noticed the phrase, “my wee installation.” Is there perhaps a Scottish influence on Piercy there?

Pedant’s corner:- The publication date given is 1992 but the author information tells us this won the Clarke Award in 1993, so it must be a later reprint. Otherwise; Fernandez’ (Fernandez’s,) hung (several times, hanged,) “a epiphenomenon” (an epiphenomenon,) “conveyer belt” (conveyor belt,) “Each people has their own road, their own destiny” (has its own road, its own destiny. People is treated as singular two lines below this!) “If she were Gadi, she would not be careless in turning his back to Yod” (if she were, then she would not be careless in turning her back,) “a group of Jews … follow after” (a group … follows after,) “the doctor yanks it free as she streams, the blood spurting out” (as she screams,) “to staunch the rush of blood” (stanch.) “Malkah shuffled after here” (after her.) “Because the house disapproved of him so strongly she wondered sometimes if an occasional message did not get lost” (she wondered sometimes if an occasional message got lost,) “eighteen hundred point fifteen hours” (eighteen hundred point one five hours – especially as this is an AI [the house] speaking,) plasticene (plasticine.)

Clarke Award 2019

I see this year’s winner* of the Arthur C Clarke Award is Rosewater by Tade Thompson.

I’ve not read it but I’ll put it on my to seek list.

*At least it wasn’t the Yoon Ha Lee.

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

47 North, 2017, 219 p.

This was on the short list for the BSFA Award last year and subsequently won the Clarke Award.

 Dreams Before the Start of Time cover

It is, however, less of a novel than a series of vignettes featuring characters with some sort of relationship to each other but unfolding over a timescale of 83 years starting in 2034. The one big change to society involved in all this is the advent of technology to nurture human fœtuses outside the womb and to tweak the genetic composition of embryos for desired traits. The slow evolution of approved standards of child gestation into outright disapproval of the natural process – how can you be so uncaring of your child’s welfare as to carry it yourself? – is well served by the form of the narrative; it comes on us gradually, as the attitude would. The choice is not, however, so easy if you lack the resources to purchase the services and provides another stick with which to beat the poor, to go along with all the traditional ones.

As a Science Fictional thought experiment this is almost text book; consequences of a change thought out and demonstrated. I can see why it has garnered the acclaim it did. As a novel it’s less so, though, coming over as bitty and too pat. Moreover I wasn’t convinced by the implied background. Even in 2120 daily life in Dreams Before the Start of Time doesn’t appear to be very different from that in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps this appears so because most of the characters are well-to-do, or at least comfortably off. Charnock writes well, though. The book is never less than readable and in places surpasses that.

Pedant’s corner:- practiced (practised.)

2019 Clarke Award Shortlist

I see the short list for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award has been announced. I missed it at the time as I was away.

The list is:-

Semiosis by Sue Burke (HarperVoyager)
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Oneworld)
The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag (Simon & Schuster)
Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Orbit)
The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

I’ve read none of them but note the Tade Thompson was on the BSFA Award list this year (despite doubts as to its eligibility – which would apply equally to the Clarke Award I’d have thought.)

Also on both lists is the Yoon Ha Lee. Having read his Ninefox Gambit I have to say I’m depressed by this.

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Faber and Faber, 2015, 728 p.

 Arcadia cover

This was shortlisted in 2016 for the Clarke Award. I can see why, but I also wonder why. A part of it is set in the future (two parts if you accept the book’s premise,) it deals with time travel and parallel worlds, yes, but one of the futures is rendered rudimentarily at best and some of the writing is … is sketchy too harsh? Yet, despite that, the book plays with genre. There is a spy story here – and a romance – to go along with the SF. Neither does it wear its allusions lightly. However, the information dumping is obtrusive and many of the characters read as if they are from stock casting. Zoffany Oldmanter in especial, as cartoon a Bond villain as you could wish for. The Clarke has a history of grabbing at SF from authors generally reckoned to come from outwith the genre. This may be an example of that. I do note however that Arcadia didn’t win (though the novel that did ought not to have when Europe at Midnight was on the shortlist.)

It all starts promisingly enough, with a 1960 academic, Professor Henry Lytten, describing to some of his colleagues the fantasy world he has invented (“‘I am creating the world,’”) and reading extracts from his novel set there. This gives Pears the ventriloquised opportunity to animadvert about C S Lewis’s “bloody bore of a lion” and how his invention of a world resulted in only a middle-class English suburb with a few swords. Pears also acknowledges early on a source of inspiration in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.

Then Rosalind (Rosie,) the fifteen-year-old girl who looks after the Professor’s cat, while searching for it in his basement draws back a curtain on a glowing pergola (disguised as a sculpture) and steps through it into that exact fantasy world. This could have been an intriguing premise for the book but Pears then adds layers of complication with the addition of a scientific outpost on the island of Mull centuries in the future investigating the possibility of travelling between parallel worlds. The institute’s Director Hanslip refuses to believe that the mechanism produced to do this is actually a time machine, though its creator, Angela Meerson, knows it is since past and future are thoroughly inter-related, there is none without the other, cause and effect are mirror images. If the past changes so does the future, and vice versa. To resolve the departmental conflict she despatches various bodies, eventually including herself, through the machine. It is she, using the Professor’s notes, who has created the world beyond the portal in his basement.

That fantasy – now actual – world, Anterwold, is ruled by the Story, its primordial text to which all disputes are referred, and is a place where storytellers are lauded, “‘There is no higher achievement or honour in the world.’” An assertion to which Rosie replies (presumably as an acerbic comment by Pears himself,) “‘In that case, it must be a very different world from mine.’” It is more or less mediæval in tone, though apparently more kindly. Despite its flimsy nature it is there the most important aspects of the novel are worked out and it and the 1960 domestic setting both seem far more real to the reader than the future world, dominated by the authoritarian Oldmanter, from which Meerson has fled. In one of her ruminations she says of the English “whose lives were so dreary and constrained, the fanciful exuberance of the human spirit was forced to take refuge in the imagination, which was the only place it could exist without attracting disapproval.” (I did wonder, whatever would she make of the Scots… ?)

By way of information installed in the head of an agent sent by Hanslip to track down Meerson in (his) past we are also introduced to the concept of deep lies, “in which the speaker simultaneously says something he knows to be untrue and genuinely believes it nonetheless: politicians are particularly adept at this.” How true.

In her act of creation Meerson has set up a tension between past and future which can only be resolved by the elimination of one or other of the scenarios. To get there from here in the real world implies catastrophe. As part of the novel’s working out, the Professor himself appears in Anterwold as a literal deus ex machina where Rosie tells him, “‘You steal ideas from everyone.’” As does Pears whose Arcadia, partly as a result, is a bit of a curate’s egg.

Pedant’s corner:- Great-aunt Jessie (Great-Aunt Jessie,) New Year’s (New Year’s Eve that would be,) “took every scrap of paper referring to the missing cleaner and incinerated them” (incinerated it,) “‘the folly of mankind, their infinite capacity for self-importance’” (its infinite capacity,) Mr Williams’ (Williams’s,) span (spun,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “‘for kindness’ sake’” (kindness’s,) staunched (stanched.)

2018 Clarke Award

This year’s winner is Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock.

I’ve not yet read it but it’s on my list.

Clarke Award 2018

The shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award has been announced.

It is:-

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill
Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock
American War by Omar El Akkad
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

It’s a list shorn of the usual suspects and I’m delighted Spaceman of Bohemia is on there. I really enjoyed it.

I note, too, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time again appearing on a short list.

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