Sunday, June 4, 2017

June Reads Part One

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Another book recommended by the Twitter crew I follow, Europe in Autumn is the first of a tetralogy which cross-pollinates genre signifiers to great effect. Opening slowly as a spy thriller set in a near-future Europe, with the continent split into ever-smaller polities, city-states, micro-nations, etc, the first novel introduces Rudi, a cook-turned-courier for a nonpartisan shadow network of trumped up mail carriers. Most of what they smuggle across the ever-increasing borders is data and information but sometimes people too. Despite the banal spy subject, Hutchinson livens things up with confidence in the reader's ability to suss things out. To wit, information is parceled out quietly, without much fanfare; readers are required to deduce and conclude. Not that the plot is intricate or complex. Rather, Hutchinson's sequences dispense with telling the audience things, preferring to show instead. As the spy "conspiracy" ramps up, with complications stacking up, a worrisome trend in the narrative begins to rear its head. Similar to problems with spy novels in general, Europe in Autumn does that annoying thing where any interaction the protagonist has with a civilian is immediately revealed to be an interaction with a fellow spy. When staying a bed-and-breakfast, Rudi meets two Scottish girls holidaying; within two pages of quotidian conversation, the girls come out as operatives working for [redacted]. There are no instances of meeting "civilians" in the novel, which is somewhat irritating. Any time a civilian is introduced, no matter how banal the interaction, the reader can confidently assume they're part of the global espionage network. Perhaps this "smallness" of the world is purposeful: similar to how Star Wars feels intensely small with Skywalkers turning up no matter what planet you go to, the Europe of Europe in Autumn feels claustrophobic with spies running around each other.

As the novel goes on, Hutchinson introduces an element of science fiction—this Europe is possibly a parallel universe and this secret must be kept at all costs. The clever bit shows itself in the last thirty pages: Rudi now couriers people from one universe to another. Hutchinson's reticence with his science fictional trope is not motivated by coyness or—hopefully—embarrassment with genre. Instead, the slow introduction of science fiction appears to be aesthetically and generically motivated. I'm reminded again of Mark Fisher's critical intervention The Weird and the Eerie. The possibility of a parallel universe isn't simply a revolution in conceptualizing the world but another element of the strangeness of geopolitical borders. Here, I use strangeness in the same way Fisher does: that which does not belong. The artificiality of the borders in this fractured Europe mirrors the artificiality of this well-guarded border between universes. The powers-that-be in this fictional world have politicized the border between universes for profit and power. Rudi's growing awareness of the strangeness of this world is an effect of the author's instrumentalizing of The Weird. The very knowledge of the strangeness of the world creeps in on the self. Hutchinson wisely begins most chapters after the halfway mark with a different character through which he focalizes. Rudi is then introduced through strange but familiar signifiers: his youthful good looks, his accentless English, his limp, his tics of speech, etc. The self the novel is centered on is made familiar but not at the same time, mirroring the disassociation Rudi feels as the Weird impinges further on his sense of reality. Thus, the Weird motivates the generic cross-pollination. I eagerly await reading the next one.

Binti is another one of the novellas, this time the first in a trilogy written by esteemed Nnedi Okorafor. At the risk of essentializing, one reason why I'm often drawn to science fiction written by black authors, such as Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, is that their perspective on science fiction as the Other generates much more intellectually stimulating and aesthetically different fare than the usual stuff. Case in point, Binti takes a single isolated black African and deposits them into a science fictional world populated by people who regard the protagonist as Other already. When bounced off the traditional science fictional Other of Alien Antagonist, Binti's emotional journey is made all the more unique and enthralling. As I've gotten older, I've found myself increasingly drawn to science fiction which opts to avoid ending things in the usual cathartic orgy of violence. Similar to how I find sincerity far more alluring than ironic detachment, nonviolent climaxes to narratives interest me more for its non-hegemonic status. Recently, I watched notorious B-movie Star Crystal, and I fell head over heels with it. Similar to my life long adoration for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home, this film and Binti feature "antagonists" who are simply misunderstood or are the "true civilized people all along!" It's a trope in of itself, of course, but these revelations are usually paired with sincere affect, emotional catharsis, and a genuine optimism to which I'm drawn more and more.

 Star Crystal, an ostensible Alien clone, depicts a spaceship crew being stalked by an unknown alien threat. At the beginning of the third act, the alien, named GAR, opts to learn about humanity and reads the Bible, from which he learns about forgiveness and grace. When the protagonist armed with flamethrower begins his final confrontation with the alien, he is interrupted by GAR solemnly asking for forgiveness. Thus, the climax of the film is a montage of the burgeoning friendship between the surviving crew and GAR, including a cutesy moment of GAR attempting to help with repairs with his telekinesis. In the very final scene, GAR makes the ultimate sacrifice, ending his life to save his friends. The last words of the film are "I will always cherish your friendship."

Binti ends in a similar way, but is much more influenced by Octavia Butler. Binti, with her long braids, volunteers to negotiate on behalf of the alien threat. The Meduse have killed everybody on the spaceship save for the pilot (a necessity) and Binti, and not by choice; a device Binti carries allows for her and the aliens to communicate; the device allows protects her. The plan is to invade the galaxy's greatest university where the alien chief's stinger has been displayed in a museum, a dishonorable and lowly act, according to the antagonists. Once Binti learns more about the Meduse, she comes to understand their culture isn't so alien after all. In fact, it is Binti's African-ness, her Himba ethnicity, which allows for cross-species understanding. Her traditional otjize, a paste of oils and clay used as protection from the harsh desert sun as well as a natural cleanser substituting for the sparse water, turns out to have healing properties for the Meduse. In the last sequence, they infect her with Meduse DNA, turning her braids into bright blue tentacles, turning her Otherness into something more—hence my comparison to Butler. Binti reminded me a lot of Butler's masterful short story "Bloodchild," which imagines a physical symbiotic relationship between human and alien which had never really be conceptualized before. The intimacy of the relationship between Meduse and Binti isn't quite symbiotic as the one in "Bloodchild," but the reconfiguring of subject positions by reconfiguration of physicality struck me. In the denouement, Binti attends the university, now made alien doubly so (she is the first Himba person to attend and now she is part Meduse) with the university's first Meduse student. They are both Others, forever tainted by the world outside their home, unable to return. Black science fiction understands deep in its bones the mantra of "you can't go home again" and depicts it with a flair and aesthetic novelty not often seen in white cis straight science fiction. 

I do worry about exoticizing black science fiction. My gaze is certainly that of whiteness and massive privilege. I also worry about essentializing black science fiction; not all of what I've read mobilizes the metaphor of the Other through blackness (which implies I'm astute enough to discern this metaphor prima facie, as if the white gaze is a superior one!). I hope my admiration for black science fiction is as non-territorializing and nonviolent as possible. Though, I am always open to critique, especially in regards to subjects in which I am not an expert. 

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