Blakwork, Alison Whittaker

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

Blakwork - Base Image

I am not a poetry reader let alone reviewer and I only bought this book, a year or so ago, because I was in my local bookstore and the book’s from Broome, WA based indigenous publisher Magabala, and so I assumed it was West Australian. In fact Alison Whittaker “is a Gomeroi multitasker from the floodplains of Gunnedah [NSW]. She is a Fulbright scholar, and a poet and essayist …”.

BlakWorks then languished on my bedside table until I was reminded by Brona’s review of the poem A Love like Dorothea’s (here including a video of a reading by the author) to give it another try. I wasn’t really thinking about who Dorothea was when I started to read and so it hit me like a punch. The assertion Whittaker is making here, I think, is that our love for this land we have so recently occupied alienates the people who have been its custodians for the last 60 millenia. Our love leaves no room for their love. No quote, it would decrease the impact of you reading/listening to it yourself.

The book is divided into 15 sections: whitework, bloodwork, storywork … through to newwork, blakwork; each with about half a dozen poems. Whitework commences with the poem blakwork which tells us that it is a full time job dealing with white guilt: “Indentured blakwork, something like:/nine to five, forgiv-/-ing you.”

I won’t pretend I understood all, or even half, of what I read. Some of the poems are concrete, that is their structure is part of the poem; at least a couple are short essays but here, in a book of poems, we must be aware of the shape, the sound of words as well as of meaning; a number render legalese into poetry to provide a commentary on Indigenous people’s experience of the Australian legal system; and some (I think!) are about other stuff, not just Black-White relations.

Some I like without knowing why: “… so many blaks/How could I name them all?/Inner city arty blak/Remote yet so connected blak/Welfare woman villain blak …” (bpm); or “Indigine, slip through the world Aboriginally this is your line, as your parents will prepare/you so too will you prepare yourself so too will you repair you …” (badblak).

One, ethnomathematics, struck me with a dose of that white guilt. A few words (numbers) dotted across the page: “one, one   /halfhalfhalf …/threequarters/fiveeighths”. Pretty clear what it’s referring to.

There are a few poems which are commentaries on white man’s law. Two or three are ‘simply’  lists of the most common phrases in the judges’ decsion. So, the skeleton of the common law is extracted from the Mabo decision; and exhibit tab is from the inquest into the death of Ms Dhu [who died in a police cell in Port Hedland WA in 2014, while being held for unpaid fines (here)] –

Exhibit 2 tab
The custody system
XXXX Dhu’s temperature
The police vehicle
Lock up procedure

Another, An Act, plays with white legalese: “This Act is the Binaal Bunma-li, Warra-y Act 2018 …  Definitions:/… Binaal Bunma-li: to soothe or settle down/…/Regulations: such as determined by Elders through Country/…. “.

Some is more or less what you would expect, family stories in the section the abattoir; a complaint that a Black woman has been white-washed out of the Thunderbolt [bushranger] legend; an ode to her schoolmates, for feral girls:

‘O, youse feral girls,’
Twisting hands, dancing to warrambul like they’re crossing fingers,
twisting Kmart bras under Big Dub singlets.
They got that
sacred patchwork of precedence–legging thighs follow panty lines,
topograph their overcourse–goad softly little babs to sleep
goad firecourse to wake
goad Centrelink, its cards and monies, from the settler state.

And out of the blue, the section, the centre appears to be a dystopian short story in blank verse:

Bounced through a low-hanging satellite that competes with the atmosphere like I compete with the pedestrians, the Centre for Mob Futures is being rebuilt. Far from here, out desert ways, I’ve reported on its programmers quick to plug its many hostile haemorrhages and rework its paper scaffolds. An archive of drives all buzzing with unsteady fans and unlabelled wires. (futures. excellence.)

Access to the centre is guarded by an AI which determines Aboriginality by yarning, and demands that it be made a cup of tea (blak captcha). In a virtual outback-

… totally unsupervised by mission managers –old and new alike–mob frolicked, philosophised, borned art, and built technologies… In the Centre, a place spinning imprecisely through the sky and broadcasting to a supercomputer in the desert … (virtualisation).

It fails, I think (the project, not the poem).

As I slipped back past the belly-touching AI into the real meatland, all sparse and beige-hot and withering, the Centre’s satellite lost its signal. It shut down. (the last project).

You know I’m an SF/dystopian fan and it’s interesting that Whittaker, Ellen van Neerven and Claire Coleman, to name the most obvious, are all, sometimes anyway, in that space (pun unintended, and indeed unnoticed until about the fourth re-reading).

All the poems require contemplation, more than I have given them at this reading, and I recommend you follow Brona, both in reading one poem at a time, and literally, to see what she has to say about them. And if you’re really serious you could read the review below from the Sydney Review of books. (I haven’t, not yet anyway).

Melanie, did I like it? Not enough to rush out and buy more, but nor did I dislike it, it was interesting.

 

Alison Whittaker, BlakWork, Magabala Books, Broome WA, 2018

Jeanine Leane, Ultima Thule: BlakWork by Alison Whittaker, Sydney Review of Books, 5 Feb 2019 (here)

For further reading of Indigenous authors see –
my Aboriginal Australia page (here) – there’s a list of all my reviews at the bottom.
Lisa’a ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List (here)

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Traveller Inceptio, Rob Shackleford

Traveller inceptio

An Open Letter to the Author

Rob,

Your letter to me began –

Hi!

My name is Rob and I’m an Australian author.

My book ‘Traveller Inceptio’ has been recently published by Austin Macauley and I’m shooting this email to see if you might be interested in casting your eye over it.

Traveller-Inceptio is a gentle Sci-Fi that blends the genres of Historical Fiction and Action / Adventure, with a dash of Romance thrown in.

I’m used to Science Fiction and to the awkwardness of the often geeky (sorry!) types who write it and are its biggest fans. So I mostly regarded your overstretched prose, your blonde heroes, the few token women, and the fewer token people of colour with tolerance. But around half-way through, at Loc 5500, I got angry.

Your words were –

Vague surprise on their simian faces, they shrugged and wandered into the crowd to cruise for any infraction, real or imagined, that would allow them to instigate a forced ejection and the occasional thump if resisted.

I’m sure you know that ‘simian’ means “monkey or ape-like”. This is SF, you may have been referring to aliens or to humanised apes, but in fact the people you are describing are the security staff at an Auckland night club, “bull-necked Pacific Islander[s]”. There are many situations where the use of ‘simian’ in this context could see you in jail or cost you your job. Your usage is made more egregious here because it is in the context of brave white soldier heroes seeing off bullyin, cowardly Maoris.

The antagonist was big and beefy, with the arrogance and barely contained violence of a football player… The Maori looked to his back-up in delight, and they seemed to swell in size and threat.

I do have a second, related area of complaint that I might have discussed in the normal course of a  review and that is from when the initial time travellers, in Queensland, run into a party of Aboriginal men.

… three bearded and naked aboriginal men stood by the fishing line, eyes comically wide in terror as they stared.

What can I say? The Black man with his “eyes comically wide in terror” is a trope of the Jim Crow era, and I struggle to see how you might be so ignorant as to use it here. Further, ‘aboriginal’ should no more be uncapitalised than ‘Australian’ or ‘Shackleford’. You compound these errors, at Loc 3375/Chapter 29, by purporting to describe the encounter, including its religious and spiritual significance, from the Aboriginals’ point of view. This is a form of racism, sadly all too common in White writers, called ‘appropriation’. Look it up.

I can only hope the offence you have given here was unintended and that your book is taken down until it is rectified.

yours faithfully,

Bill Holloway


 

Traveller Inceptio begins with a group of graduate students in Queensland getting funding to invent a 3D scanner for baggage through customs. They set up in a shed on the beach near the mouth of the Maroochy River (so two of the researcher dudes can go surfing every morning) and an accidental bump to the wiring of their prototype turns the scanner into a transmitter able to send and recover people 1,000 years back in time.

Because, and the author really says this, armies are mostly white and male, half a dozen white, male soldiers from SAS regiments in Australia, NZ, UK, Canada and USA are trained to return to Saxon England – during the Danish invasions at the time of Etherald the Unready, prior to the Norman invasion of 1066 – because they’ll fit in.

Two story lines proceed in alternating chapters – the grad students set up their workshop, make their discovery, deal with their commercial sponsors, the university, Australian and US spooks; a man called Michael wanders through Nottingham Forest (its Saxon name is Snot-something), meets primitive but civilised villagers etc.. The grad student story fades away and is replaced by SAS men training to be Saxon warriors. And it all comes together in a series of very gory battles – not to my taste but I think I understand the point the author was trying to make.

The writing is over-descriptive, but does settle down after a while. There are token women, but that is a given in mainstream SF, of course they are all beautiful and good in bed (SF writers get their sex education from Playboy), except for one geeky woman who is also good in bed but of course wears glasses. The novel starts out as campus fiction but morphs into something else as the author studies what real face to face conflict with swords and axes might mean to modern soldiers. It’s ok, well except for Shackleford’s ineptitude – I hope it’s nothing more – in dealing with race.

 

Rob Shackleford, Traveller Inceptio, Austin Macauley, London, 2019o

Purchase here
Author website here

 

The Shining Wall, Melissa Ferguson

SF books used always to have SF loudly on the spine and front cover. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more, part of the unwillingness of mainstream writers to be seen as genre (looking at you Ian McEwan) maybe and part also, as in the case of this book, the laudable uptake of dystopian themes in recent Australian women’s fiction, of which I have written before.

SF, although of course it had antecedents in Frankenstein, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is largely a post-WWII phenomenon, rising out of US pulp fiction, short stories and novels of space travel, ray guns and grotesque monsters, dashed off at the rate of two, three, four novels a year for a pittance by (mostly male) writers. I read the sedate (English) John Wyndham at school but really discovered SF in the MU Union library, reading short stories and serialized novels in the pulp magazines Galaxy, Astounding, Analogue etc. and in particular Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil which Galaxy brought out in 6 parts over July-Dec 1970.

SF in the US had an almost cult status – an idea taken literally by L Ron Hubbard, SF writer and founder of the Church of Scientology – with fans and writers mixing at frequent Conventions. Heinlein, who is a good writer, but with a Superman complex (in the Nietzschean sense) became a figure of fun in fanzines (remember when blogs had to be published on paper!), his slight stature contrasting with his muscular, wealthy, high IQ, sex god (and occasional goddess) protagonists.

I write this as a lead-in to the idea that literary values in SF were often sacrificed to speed of writing and the rush of new ideas. To some extent this still continues though the movement has thrown up over time some great writers – JG Ballard, Philip K Dick, Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin and more recently William Gibson – whose merit has been obscured by the SF label attached to their writing. But SF is not unique in this, there are plenty of other genres where literary values are sacrificed to story telling – just look at the popularity in Australia of Di Morrissey, Judy Nunn, Bryce Courtenay etc., etc.

So. The Shining Wall (2019) is an Australian SF novel, without the SF label, in which the ideas and the story are more important than the writing. The author, Melissa Ferguson “lives in Geelong [Vic.] with her husband, two children, two guinea pigs, and one axolotl.” God, that annoys me! And is a “cancer-fighting” scientist, though the ideas in this book don’t particularly relate to her science.

The setting is a near future where Citizens, with perfect health, young bodies and the possibility of near-immortality have retreated into a walled city, City 1, surrounded by the ruins of the suburbs. The underclass, “demi-humans” live in shanty towns outside the walls. Neanderthals, “neos”, have been cloned to work as servants and soldiers. Re-wilders advocate the rejection of anything to do with City 1 and especially the brain implants which serve to both monitor health and act as inter-personal communications devices. Trolls tunnel under the city walls. And there are colonies of free-Neos who have escaped to the bush. Government is a dictatorship privatised out to LeaderCorp which provides both utilities, basic water and medicines, to the Demi settlements, and policing, via mixed squads of ‘sapiens’ and Neos.

We are meant to be involved in the lives of three characters, a Demi, Alida, a teenage girl who with her mother has adopted a younger, stray girl, Graycie; Shuqba, a very straight Neo woman cop who while policing a LeaderCorp ‘hub’ in the settlements befriends Alida and begins to unstraighten; and Ferrassie, another Neo woman, working in a factory turning cockroaches into flour, who falls foul of the authorities and is sentenced to the medical research facility from which no Neo ever returns.

Characterisation is ok, but subservient to plot. The oddest thing is Alida’s speech which is full of archaic Australian slang – littlies, threads, dunny, dosh.

A jigsaw of the front of the mansion appeared through some leaves, all its slick lines and creamy rendering dreamily distorted by the domeshield. Alida’s guts were in a tangle. To top it all off she need a shit. Anxiety was truly the best laxative. She pressed her knuckles into her belly. She’d shit her pants before bolting back into the mansion in search of a dunny.

Rhea darted from one greenhouse to another, peering around at the back door of the mansion and muttering some prayers.

‘Someone’s gonna clock you acting so suss,’ Alida whispered as loud as she dared.

Briefly, Alida’s mother dies and Alida has to work for Freel the local crime lord to make rent. Ganya, his offsider, smuggles Alida into the City where she is Cinderella to a Prince and two Fairy Godmothers. A drug, ‘passenger’, gets her through the sex. After, the two Citizen women ask Alida to have a child for them.

Alida refuses and refuses any further jobs; Graycie gets ill; Alida’s junkie mate is using up all her credits. Shuqba gives her some work, but eventually Alida is forced to acknowledge that Graycie would be better off if she were adopted by citizens.

There are various adventures as City 1 collapses and Shuqba attempts to save Ferrassie and reunite Alida and Graycie. The story’s ok but Ferguson never settles into a comfortable writing style and, for me at least, this was intrusive.

 

Melissa Ferguson, The Shining Wall, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2019

1984, George Orwell

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That I have reviewed two classics one after the other (Pride and Prejudice and 1984) is just a coincidence based on what audiobooks become available at my local library, but if I had the chance, classics would be all I read. And some new releases I suppose, one must ‘keep up’. Of course I’ve read them both before, but that’s why they’re classics – they stand, demand even, re-reading.

I pick up Orwells as a matter of course whenever I see them second hand and in looking for my copy of 1984 for this review I see I have a a few yet to be read – The Unknown Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Collected Essays, The Road to Wigan Pier, Coming up for Air – so expect some more reviews.

As a young man growing up, 1984 was in the distant future, a dystopia hanging over us in a way that is difficult to explain now that it is so far in the past. Later,  we congratulated ourselves that we had dodged a bullet, but what shocked me on this re-reading was Orwell’s prescience. The Introduction to my edition points out how many concepts from 1984 almost immediately entered the language:

… in common use by people who have never read the book – for example Newspeak, thought-crime, Big Brother, unperson, doublethink – most relate to the power of the state to bend reality.

These concepts, and particularly doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”, are at the core of right wing orthodoxy today.

1984 was Orwell’s last work, written in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The right, of course, promptly adopted it as an attack on Stalinism, which indeed it was, while ignoring any meaning it might have for their own tendency to totalitariansim. Orwell’s anti-Stalinism was not anti-communism, though the right and their fellow travellers in the ‘centre’ like to conflate the two. Orwell was clearly of the far left, he admired the anarchists in Spain, though he chose to fight with POUM who were basically Trotskyite (my review of Homage to Catalonia). The Republicans probably lost the war in Spain because the Soviet-supported Communists were as dedicated to defeating POUM as they were to combatting Franco. When the Republican government rounded up the leadership of POUM, Orwell was lucky to escape with his life, and this of course informs 1984, where the ruling Party is led by the Stalin figure, Big Brother and the shadowy opposition by Goldstein, clearly standing for Trotsky.

For a novel of such universal themes 1984 is suprisingly provincial. The ‘world’ it describes is the drab, post-war London of socialism, shortages and rationing. The world is divided into three blocs who have fought themselves to a stalemate. England belongs to the Oceania bloc of Great Britain, North America, South Africa and Australia, but Orwell makes no attempt to explain how English socialism prevails over US capitalism, nor how the UK is never overrun by Eurasia (Europe/Russia/South Asia).

Society is divided into Inner Party (Ruling Class), Outer Party (Middle Class) and Proles. The Inner Party rules by doing its best to prevent casual sex, channelling the resultant sexual frustration into political hysteria, with cameras and microphones everywhere so that the Thought Police may monitor every person’s activities, and children encouraged to report on their parents.

London today has an ‘Orwellian’ 500,000 cctv cameras in public spaces, though they’re probably not as informative as our communications and search records, with computer algorithms taking the place of the Ministries of Love and Truth in analysing and storing the resultant data, all available to the government and the police at the push of a button (or to you, if you want to watch, here).

At the core of the story is 39 year old Winston Smith, a minor bureaucrat whose job is to rewrite past newspaper reports so that they do not contradict current ‘truths’. Smith, who has one failed marriage behind him, lives a lonely and largely sexless life, though he did once give in to a hideously painted prole prostitute (for a socialist, Orwell is very ambivalent about the Proles). Smith is discontented with his life and has begun writing down anti-State thoughts in a journal he found in a junk shop. He becomes aware at work of a younger woman who appears to be paying him some attention. Although at first he fears she may be an informer for the Thought Police, he meets her and they become lovers, meeting first in parks then in a room he rents above the junk shop.

When they are, inevitably, betrayed the novel follows two courses, the Political and the Personal. Smith undergoes months of imprisonment, torture and indocrination to force him not just to agree with the Party, to engage in doublethink whenever he thinks he knows two facts which are at odds, but to internalise his agreement, to love Big Brother.

The Personal, the horrors of Room 101 which force Smith to disavow his feelings for Julia, his lover are well known, and anyway, as with many dystopian works, are merely a vehicle for the real message.

It’s clear that Orwell’s cynicism about ‘truth’ or about our leaders telling us the truth was a direct result of his participation in the war in Spain. In Looking Back on the Spanish War he writes,

As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they rather result from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’, but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds.

As a participant, he was able to make the comparisons first-hand between what was happening in Spain and what was reported in European newspapers:

I saw great battles reported where there was no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed… I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’…

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.

The middle part of the book is taken up with Smith reading a critique of the Party, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by the rebel leader Goldstein, a pretence to get us to absorb a lot of Newspeak and Doublethink theory.

The war between the blocs is explained as very little to do about territory gained and lost, and all to do with motivating members to unquestioningly support the Party – reprising the anarchist argument War is the Health of the State. In reality –

the war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.

I won’t take the theory lesson much further except to point out the almost exact parallels between the orthodoxy required by the Party in 1984 and the contortions of apparently intelligent people on the right of politics today to hold, and to insist that we also hold, beliefs that are completely at odds with what we, and they, know to be true.

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.

Does that sound like Creationism to you? Does that sound like Climate-Change denialism? Like the arguments in favour of invading Iraq? Of course it does, because that’s how those in power work, in Orwell’s time, in our time.

 

 

George Orwell, 1984, first pub. 1949. My copy (not pictured above) Penguin 1989 with Introduction by Dr Peter Davison [I sourced the illustration from another blog (here) but couldn’t identify the illustrator. Tetiana Aleksina who often ‘likes’ my excursions into SF might have more info.]

George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War, written 1943, first pub. 1953. Published with Homage to Catalonia, 1968.

Rubik, Elizabeth Tan

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Elizabeth Tan is a young woman writer from Perth,WA. She is not a 25 year old pop singer from Malaysia, well I don’t think so anyway. The Brio site says,

In 2015, [Tan] completed her PhD in creative writing at Curtin University. Her thesis investigated the intrusion of science-fictional tropes and iconography onto our current social reality, and the cultural anxieties that this has produced. This practice-led research culminated in her first novel Rubik, published in 2017.

It’s a bit of shame about that PhD, although too common to worry about any more. I like to think of the author as slaving away in a garret [from the old French “guerite”, meaning “watchtower” or “sentry box.”] to get her dreams down on paper, not poring over textbooks to assemble concepts in an order acceptable to her supervisor, and  I’ve written before that I find novels by literature academics often too self-consciously post modern. But not, I’m happy to say, in this case.

One of the great pleasures of reading C21st writing – for me – is the way Science Fiction has leaked into the Lmainstream. Think Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, Claire Coleman, Terra Nullius, and all right, Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Wait, there’s more, Krissy Kneen, Rodney Hall, Georgia Blain, Robert Edeson, Nathan Hobby, and these are just authors that I’ve reviewed.

SF is a way of making sense of the world, and this is a world that needs to be made sense of. Early, 1950s SF fought WWII and the Cold War in space, America to the rescue, a trope laughably referenced recently by President Trump.

In the 1960s and ’70s SF reflected not just psychedelia, experimental writing, the drug culture, different ways of living, though there was lots of that, but also the consequences of nuclear and climate disasters. Sadly the literature was regarded as genre, and to be honest, the purview of nerdish young men. Consequently, great writers like JG Ballard, Doris Lessing, Ursula le Guin, Phillip K Dick received far less attention, as writers, than they deserved.

Mainstream writing proceeded on its way with social realism. Mostly. There were outliers like David Ireland’s A Woman of the Future and Thomas Keneally, A Dutiful Daughter. Postmodernism which had begun in the 1950s as a way of describing and deconstructing writing was by the 1980s merely a fashion in which all literary works had to contain elements of meta fiction. Likewise Magic Realism, interesting in a South American context and later in Indian, African and Indigenous writing, but just a base to touch for Anglos, pointless and handled badly.

So, to Rubik. First, this is a work set unselfconsciously in Perth, not in a descriptive way, you won’t get much of an idea of what Perth is like, but fun to follow for a local as characters flit from Northbridge (inner city arts and restaurant precinct) up and down the Mandurah (south) and Joondalup (north) rail lines.

Rubik is a novel about the intersecting lives of a range of characters, through a series of vignettes, not sequential, and sometimes exploring alternate time lines. Even if you miss some (or most) of the connections, and I’m sure I did, it is immensely enjoyable. In particular, Tan writes likeable characters and I hope in a future novel she takes the opportunity to let us know two or three characters really well.

The eponymous Elena Rubik is knocked down by a car and killed in the first scene but persists in various ways throughout. Her housemate Jules Valentine is asked to stand in for the ‘falling woman’, a widely distributed meme associated with the new in-phone. A little girl is cared for by an octopus/transformer. Peter’s piano teacher disappears and he and his new school friend attempt to find her. Ursula and Penny create mobiles for an exhibition at the Cultural Centre (in Northbridge of course). They fixate on a voice-over man whose cat may exist in alternate universes. Everyone sort of recognises Jules, as she has been the face of the Ampersand product range. Audrey repairs robot birds and insects, which are all we have left. A student newspaper begins pulling some of the strands together. With surprising results.

Some of these strands may be stories on an old fan fiction site of which Ampersand sales people Michael and Bette are or have been members. As was/is Elena.

This is a novel for our neo-liberal times where corporations run by faceless old white men both know and control everything about us. Tan fights back subtly, with satire, with ‘acceptably brown’ characters, with off-hand analyses of the way we submit to being manipulated. I forget who recommended Rubik now, but thank you, I loved it.

 

Elizabeth Tan, Rubik, Brio/Xoum, Sydney, 2017

Ice, Anna Kavan

Ice

“Few novelists match the intensity of her vision,” JG Ballard
“There is nothing else quite like Ice,” Doris Lessing

Ice was first published in 1967 and republished in the Penguin Classics edition above in  2017. The sticker on the back indicates I bought it new though I don’t remember why, perhaps it was those testimonials from two of my all-time favourite writers.

Kavan, born Helen Emily Woods in 1901 (in France to English parents) had a troubled life. Her father suicided when she was 10, her mother married her off to her (mother’s) lover. She began writing in her twenties and published first under her (first) married name Helen Ferguson before legally adopting the name Anna Kavan, and changing her hair from brunette to ice blonde, in 1940. She had multiple hospitalizations for depression and a lifelong heroin addiction (wiki). She has a considerable body of increasingly experimental work to her credit. Ice was the last work published before her death in 1968.

1967 was the year of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Monterey Pop Festival, The Ticket that Exploded, Ballard and Lessing were both established writers, I was a year or so away from university and already started on the edgy science fiction of Phillip K Dick, John Sladek and Robert Sheckley. The USA and the USSR were held back from annihilating each other and us all only by the certainty of MAD.  France was testing nuclear weapons at Mururoa.

This is the context that produced Ice.

The world is coming to an end as nuclear winter leads to walls of ice converging from the poles towards the equator. As individual countries break down into lawlessness our protagonist, a guy, seeks his old love, an ice blonde wraith who is currently living with his rival. In sunshine he makes his way to their retreat in the country. His rival stands back, is condescending. She doesn’t trust him, turns away when he approaches, chooses to stay. As he leaves, snow begins to fall. He knows the girl’s relationship with his rival is abusive.

She goes abroad, or is taken – it feels like from England to Norway, but nowhere, no-one is named. He makes his way by sea to the northern country where the girl is with/being held by the Warden, his rival, the local military commander. Social structures are collapsing as the ice approaches.

The whole short novel, 180pp, a fable Kavan said later in answer to criticisms that it has no plot, is a dream/nightmare as the protagonist braves ice and war to get near Her only to lose out and have to restart as his rival becomes increasingly powerful in regional and then world terms. As with any dream, we proceed in discontinuous fragments. She is consumed by ice, by marauders, is sacrificed to a dragon

Armed men came up, pushed me back, seized her by her frail shoulders. Big tears fell from her eyes like icicles, like diamonds, but I was unmoved. They did not seem to me like real tears. She herself did not seem quite real. She was pale and almost transparent, the victim I used for my own enjoyment in dreams… The men did not wait any longer but hurled her down, her last pathetic scream trailing after her.

As with Ballard, the post-apocalyptic world is just a backdrop for the disintegration of the protagonist. The real theme of the novel is that the woman fears her rescuer, fears most of all that if she trusts him he will let her down. Even when he does at last rescue her, takes her to a Pacific island, she turns away from him, tells him to leave, and when he does, takes that as proof that she must not rely on him. Been there!

The guy leaves, fights a few wars, meets up with his rival, now Supreme General, has a change of heart and fights his way back to Her. The ice has nearly reached the Equator. He persuades her to ‘escape’ with him. There will be no escape.

The point is that the girl is a victim:

Fear was the climate she lived in; if she had ever known kindness it would have been different… All her life she had thought of herself as a foredoomed victim.

Systematic bullying when she was most vulnerable had distorted the structure of her personality, made a victim of her, to be destroyed, either by things or by human beings, people or fjords and forests; it made no difference, in any case she could not escape.

This is Kavan writing out her pain. Ignore the male protagonist, he is not Kavan’s focus, merely the instrument of the girl’s suffering, her suffering. Ignore the SF, Kavan just needed a setting to explore victimhood and nuclear winter was topical. I have not read Kavan before, now I am interested to know if Acker or Ettler did. Kavan seems like a precursor. The results of Googling ‘Anna Kavan Kathy Acker’ suggests that others have had the same thought.

 

Anna Kavan, Ice, Peter Owen, London, 1967, Repub. Penguin, 2016

 

 

 

 

An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen

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When I was a kid in the late 1950s the only commercial radio I heard was on the farm during school holidays, the radio in granddad’s ute tuned to 3SH Swan Hill (except around midday when he insisted on Blue Hills and the rural stock prices), playing Bobby Darrin, Dion, Ricky Nelson; I can still sing Vic Dana’s Red Roses for a Blue Lady. Even when I was a teenager the most popular singers on radio included Frank Sinatra, Matt Munro, and Tom Jones, and this at a time when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had been around for 2 or 3 years. As the 60s passed I got into the Animals, the Loved Ones, Janice Joplin, King Crimson, the Doors – though sadly my all time favourite was and is Roy Orbison – but Sinatra et al were still around.

It was years before I realised that this confusion of singers hadn’t popped up out of nowhere but represented the continuation of a variety of streams – pre-war Swing (Sinatra), African-American Blues and White Country Rock. And of course over time they merged, continued, threw off new streams (and somewhere around Hip-Hop became unlistenable*).

Literature has as many streams as music. And for some reason – maybe with Climate Change its time has come – the stream that has come to the fore recently is Speculative Fiction and in particular Women’s SF – which I have argued elsewhere differs in significant ways from Men’s (aka ‘Mainstream’) SF. I wonder (idly!) if a part of the reason for this emergence -within Literature, rather than off to one side in genre – is the popularity of Margaret Attwood and her resolute refusal to be genre-ised.

In the past few years I have reviewed Jane Rawson (here, here, here), Ellen van Neerven (here), Alexis Wright (here). Charlotte Wood (here), Claire Coleman (here), and, to throw in a guy, Rodney Hall (here) not just because of my ongoing interest in SF but because they are genuinely at the forefront of new literature in Australia. And then there’s also Georgia Blain (here), Nathan Hobby (here), Robert Edeson (here, here) and Sue Parritt (here), of whom only the last is completely ‘straight’ SF.

Krissy Kneen is not an author I know, but this appears to be her sixth novel. It is a mixture of Speculative and Erotic fiction that I enjoyed. As for “streams”, the only direct predecessor I can think of is Linda Jaivin and the lightweight, amusing, sexy Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).

The novel begins with Caspar, a lecturer in Literature – a guy in the first person, lecturing: “If an author uses first person, a reader is trapped in her or his perspective …” – focusing his attention on the prettiest girl in his class. It soon becomes apparent that Caspar serially has affairs with a girl from each of his classes.

He gets his comeuppence when Liv, a previous afairee, leaves him a gift of a memory stick and a virtual reality suit which enables him to re-live their love-making as she experienced it, and he becomes “trapped in her perspective”. This on its own is a powerful short story. To be a man experiencing his fumblings and shortcomings from the woman’s point of view is intensely humbling,

I still have her skin on me. I still feel her hurt, her disappointment, her terrible bittersweet scent of ennui.

I wonder if the weeks will scour her body from my skin. I will become myself. I will return to myself unchanged because we don’t change, not ever. Or at least, I have not ever before.

 but Kneen’s ambition is greater than this and she leads us on through four more ‘short stories’, each also in the first person, from the POV of a person other than Liv, as Liv ages and refines her use of the suit.

Liv is a researcher working with paedophiles to see if they can use the suit to develop empathy. Her subject, Ronnie becomes a jellyfish, becomes all jellyfish through all time.

Cameron is a – 50 years of science fiction and I can’t recall the word for a robot with human consciousness, ahh, android – an android who looks like a pre-teen boy and who ‘genuinely’ wishes to make love with paedophiles, no. 35 in a sequence of androids who have been progressively “improved” and their predecessors eliminated, happy in his work until he is subverted by a girl his own age, Ellen.

M is trans, in a time when gender reassignment is readily available to minors. She has a genuinely asexual partner but slowly becomes attracted to an old lady, Liv, who is belatedly undertaking her own transition to trans.

Finally the ‘first person’ is Liv, beyond a century old, using all her money to to hire, becoming friends with a beautiful prostitute, in the suit experiencing youth and sex for the last time. In each of the stories Liv is a person who constructs narratives from the captured experiences of herself and others.

If this were one of my narratives I would begin here.

The first time I paid a prostitute to masturbate me was when my body had died. I was nothing more than a collection of thought patterns, memories stored digitally, circuits firing like synapses, and yet this woman was slipping her fingers up and inside me.

Kneen is an accomplished writer, melding metafiction, erotica and speculation to produce entertaining yet thoughtful fiction. If she were a singer I think she would be Ani DiFranco.

 

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017

see also: Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)


*Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer shows how much I know – New Yorker