Rejected Essays and Buried Thoughts



Rejected Essays


Buried Thoughts

Farah Mendlesohn

Published as a collection,

January 2017.


Rackstraw Press

Copyright Farah Mendlesohn, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9554688-1-0


Title Page


Rejected Essays

The SF Short Story

Suniti Namjoshi’s fables and Cross-genre Knowingness.

What Is This Child You Speak Of?

The Unravelling Skein of Genocide

Buried Thoughts

Writing a Ruritania in A Post-Colonial World

Seven Beauties of Science Fiction

Now Let Us Put Away Childish Things” Games, fantasy

Mortal Love

The Campaign for Shiny Futures

Dreaming in Smoke

Gender, Power, and Conflict Resolution: “Subcommittee” by Zenna Henderson

Surpassing the Love of Vampires Or, Why (and How) a Queer Reading of the Buffy/Willow Relationship is Denied

The Cartesian Novum of Third Rock from the Sun


Prosperity Will Return After a Short Adjustment

Iain M. Banks: the dialectic of decadence and utopia.

Impermanent Revolution: The Anarchic Utopias of Ken MacLeod


Rejected Essays And Buried Thoughts


Farah Mendlesohn



This short collection begins with four pieces that never made it to formal publication, although all are on Academia.edu. Two were commissions, ‘The SF Short Story’ and ‘What is this Child You Speak Of?’, the first for a volume, the second for a keynote. I had a strong idea of what I wanted to say about the SF short story, and in the end it did not fit the volume. The conference didn’t produce a proceedings volume and I started a new job as a Head of Department the Monday afterwards; without the incentive of a proceedings volume I never got round to sending the article to a journal. The others were pieces that were written for journals, but I have never been very good at journal articles. My very first attempt came back with a recommendation to read the thesis I had written; I suppose it attests to the quality of anonymous peer reviews. I could get depressed and wonder if I am impossible to edit but I have never had a problem incorporating editorial comment on book length works. However, every one of these pieces was written because there was something I wanted to say.With that in mind I put them on Academia.edu where they have had a number of downloads and some nice responses. Not everyone wants to join a web site, so for those of you who don’t here they are.

I have not sought to embarrass anyone. Editors have decisions to make and they are often as much about ‘fit’ as they are about quality.

The second part of the collection, “Buried Thoughts”, is a bit different. Here are some reviews and think pieces which contain nuggets I want to preserve; and although I haven’t written many articles, the ones I did publish were fairly well received. But most were published before online publication and they are hard to find, or they were published in non sf venues. I thought I’d put some of my favourites/most requested here.

The final section consists of three essays on modern utopias: although all were written for different venues, the intention had been to gather them together, write another three such essays and publish them with six other essays by Edward James in a book for which he had a contract. The editor left the publisher, and all of us got distracted by other projects. One day we may return to it.


Thank you to Edward James who has seen me through all of these projects and reassured me when an article or chapter collapsed.

Rejected Essays

This article started as a commission. I accepted the commission at a time when I really should not have done (in that I was supposed to be working on my book on Heinlein) because it gave me the opportunity to write things I’d wanted to write for a while. This was a mistake. Do not accept commissions for other people’s books in order to write the thing you want to write, it won’t work and it isn’t fair. After close to two years work, a great deal of negotiation and a growing sense on both sides that whatever I was writing it wasn’t what the editors had asked for, the final draft was rejected. But by this time the paper had been read by three senior critics who all thought it was worth reading. I will leave you to make up your own mind. Note however that this is the penultimate and preferred version.


The Science Fiction Short Story




The science fiction short story appeared in a particular time and place and developed very specific characteristics which combined at least three clear narrative trajectories, a range of very specific narrative techniques, and a body of language (poetics) which became essential to the form for a period that, looking back, we might now think of as the period of the “classic” sf short story, roughly from 1914 to the beginning of the twenty first century. There is evidence that this form is now diffusing, but its markers still persist. This chapter does not argue that the trajectories identified are unique to the sf short story, but they are the markers which lead sf readers to identify, and frequently co-opt, stories and authors from beyond the genre publishing industry including writers such as Borges and Ruth Ozecki.

The science fiction short story as we know it today is a child of the American periodicals which established a viable market for the short story and nurtured early genre writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, and later the of the new genre specific science fiction magazines. In the UK and France writers working as literary writers of scientific romance had already moved decisively into novels by the 1930s. E J Carnell’s New Worlds (from 1939-1946 the fanzine Novae Terrae), was a conscious attempt to emulate the US short fiction market. 

The history of US magazines has been ably outlined by Mike Ashley in The Time Machines (2000) and its sequels. There many short stories of scientific romance published worldwide in the general pulp magazines such as Argosy, or as fillers between scientific articles as in Hugo Gernsback’s Electrical Experimenter (see Nevins, 2014) but the genre specific sf magazines aregenerally held to begin with the launch of Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernsback in 1926.

The sf magazines constructed a situational context for science fiction and an experimental and collaborative community space for both writers and readers. It is this conversational space — first in the letter columns and the fanzines, then developed in “Best Of…” anthologies, and currently carried on by on-line magazines, blogs, facebook and twitter — that makes the science fiction short story interesting. This context initially allied science fiction less with fiction than with science — through editorials and science articles; readers’ scientific criticism of articles in the letters columns; and adverts for courses in various trades. The occasional author profiles emphasised scientific or technical qualifications. Yet many sf stories in the early years drifted from this purported mission, and Brooks Landon argues that the level of science and the arguments for plausibility are but a “consensual hoax” (27). Robert Heinlein, writing in 1969, put it rather more magisterially, “The pragmatic rule of least hypothesis, useful as it may be to orderly research, is as unfunctional in speculative fiction as a chaperone on a honeymoon. …the science fiction writer should not be bound…his function is to speculate from such facts as there are and to do so as grandly and sweepingly as his imagination permits.” (1969, 21)

Science fiction, as described by Heinlein, is such a diffuse genre that it is very hard to define. In 2010 John Reider offered the following:

p<>{color:#000;}. Sf is historical and mutable;

p<>{color:#000;}. Sf has no essence, no single unifying characteristic, and no point of origin;

p<>{color:#000;}. [*Sf is not a set of texts, but rather a way of using texts *]and of drawing relationships among them; (my bold)

p<>{color:#000;}. Sf’s identity is a differentially articulated position in an historical and mutable field of genres;

p<>{color:#000;}. Attribution of the identity of sf to a text constitutes an active intervention in its distribution and reception.

The key point here is number 3, and will be the focus of this chapter, that the sf short story is focused by the way texts are written and in particular the narrative trajectories the stories constructed.

The reprint and original fiction in the early science fiction magazines varied from imperialist adventure stories in exotic lands (perhaps made more exotic by being on another planet,; through invention stories; interplanetary war stories; and fables of positrons and electrons. But science fiction magazines, so often dismissed as pulp regenerators of hackneyed plots, tropes and characters (and there is much that fits that description), need to be re-visioned as a hothouse for radical experimentation with form, plot, language and attitude.

As Paul Kincaid has argued persuasively, what is shared is less a set of themes than an attitude of mind. These stories share a sense of wonder at the boundless possibilities the universe holds (Nye, 1996); they share a belief that if things have changed radically in the past, they may change radically in the future, and that progress is not necessarily linear; they share a belief that humans wielding reason, may intervene in the present to create a different future (see Huntingdon, 1989). They share a complex dynamic of wonder and recoil at the power of technology (Csieray-Ronay, 2011). These can be understood in a range of ways.

One way in which a consensus argument regarding what is science fiction has emerged is through the anthology market. These collections ensured that certain stories stayed in the popular memory and created an argument about what science fiction was, and how it should be written. However one needs to remember that reprint markets are shaped as much by the availability of rights, and by popular prejudice; stories by women before 1970 were decidedly less likely to receive reprints.

The first collection of science fiction stories drawn from the magazines was probably Donald Wollheim’s The Pocket Book of Scxience Fiction (1943) and the first “Best of…: series was Bleiler and Ditky’s Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949, which lasted for just over a decade. The early reprint anthologies produced between 1946 and 1950 by editors Groff Conklin. Raymond J Healy with J Francis McComas, and August Derlethwhose Beyond Time & Space was the first big historical anthology) helped create a canon of those early stories. In the 1960s Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr’s Worlds Best SF, and Judith Merril’s Year’s Best SF dominated the field, while today Gardner Dozoiz, David Hartwell, and more recently the Australian Jonathan Strahan have dominated the field. A close examination of those stories which broke into canon suggest that it is almost always a mode of writing, a way of creating the sense of wonder or the sublime, or of constructing a future, that charges the story with its authority.

The importance of these collections to the critic was first recognized by John Huntington, in his groundbreaking work, Rationalizing Genius: Ideological Strategies in the Classic American Science Fiction Short Story (1989). Huntingdon argued “The problem is to find a way to discuss classic popularity while retaining a mode of selection unbiased by aesthetic presumptions.” (15) Huntingdon is naive in arguing that the selection is “free from the kinds of distortion, both aesthetic and economic” by virtue of being selected by “not critics or scholars, but working writers” (four of the selected writers had reputations as critics; four were well known editors). The selection was shaped by a decision to represent no author with more than one story; by the overwhelmingly male nature of the membership (only one of the twenty six stories is by a woman) and by the restriction to science fiction published in the US prior to 1970. But Huntingdon can plausibly claim that a recognized section of the science fiction community chose these stories as representative, and thus for the critic it is plausible and inherently interesting to explore how that field is understood through their selection.

Most of the stories discussed in this chapter will be taken from two anthologies, James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction vol 3: From Heinlein to Here (1979) and The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, edited by Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham and Carol McGuirk (2010). Gunn’s anthology was for some thirty years the only truly comprehensive historical anthology to represent the canon of science fiction as understood by fans. The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, the most recent entrant into the field, represents the choice of the editors of one of the major journals in the field, Science Fiction Studies: it tends to the literary and is grouped in ways that reflect the mainstream of academic teaching in the field. The two anthologies represent two approaches to science fiction and often contain the same authors, if not the same stories. However in order to represent the true breadth of today’s field I have also included stories available on line and one from the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus.



Science fiction short stories and plot.

Sf themes are responsive to political fashion. The science fiction plot is a fragile thing, frequently reliant on other genres such as romance or crime, but it is my contention that there is such a thing and that the short story form renders this most visible.

Many popular early forms, such as the fabulous journey or the alternate history had limited futures as shortstories, they simply require too large a canvas. In the early magazines, the fabulous journey, whether by rocket ship, crystal, or astral traveling, developed into the novellas, novelettes and serials, understood in science fiction as separate forms. These were Parrinder’s “truncated” or “prophetic” epic, narratives of “heroism and prophecy” (1980). Within this category were the Wellsian time travel stories, E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s interplanetary romances, even the future history graph produced by Robert A. Heinlein to indicate the stories he intended to write — a journey into his own future. Later short story writers, such as Cordwainer Smith, would use the epic context or hidden epic, to background their stories.

The “future war” story emerged in the late nineteenth century with “The Battle of Dorking” (1871) and is explored extensively by I F Clarke. H.G. Wells repurposed the plot for The War of the Worlds (1897), and again, this crops up in a number of early short stories such as Leslie F. Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola” (1931). This branch of science fiction was eventually to take on overtones of nuclear apocalypse, as in Theodore Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses” (1947). Where the novels have tended to be deadpan, the short story versions of this plot are often laced with irony. The post-apocalyptic story has tended to be a very different thing, William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” (1953) is a tale of niaviety and regret, Walter M. Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (the first story in what would become a novel,) is a tale of regret and yet confident rebuilding which typifies much post-apocalyptic sf.

The alien encounter, often a feature of travel narratives, did become a classic plot of the short story form. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) has become a classic because it was the first story to posit that aliens might not be instantly comprehensible, nor easily slotted into whichever hierarchies of race the author or the editor was willing to authorise. The alien as Other story has also traditionally carried much of the analogic weight of science fiction (James, 1990 28-36): Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” (1984), posits a relationship between human settlers and host aliens which is parasitic, exploitative and intensely emotional. A related early plot was the “revolt of the slaves”: this one is often hard to see because as the form develops the “slave” is frequently not a human being. In some of the earliest stories, as Karel Capek’s R. U. R(1920) and War with the Newts (1936), the slaves are robots or animals.. Two robot revolt stories, Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” (1954) or Brian Aldiss’s “Who Can Replace a Man?” (1958) are both discussed in detail here.

Overarching these plots are the story types of science fiction, as identified by Isaac Asimov: if this goes, if only, and what if, the first of which is the title of Heinlein’s “If This Goes On —” (1941), in which politics or scientific or environmental change forces changes in behaviour (Heinlein 1965, 19). While its manifestation changed radically over the decades (environmental impact, inventions, and social or economic change have all driven it), the idea that changes in the world change people, remained one of the core plot drivers in the field and one which is not generally shared by other genres.



Suvin’s novum is the idea or object that creates the rupture within the world as we understand it. This may be a robot, a new vaccine or disease, or a change in the social structure; most modern stories use multiple nova. But the novum takes us only part of the way into the structure of a science fiction story. In “What it is we do when we read science fiction”, Kincaid argues “We would not even recognize a work of science fiction if it did not convey…some key way in which the world presented differs from the world we recognize as every day reality.” (2008: 11) Science fiction has developed ways to exaggerate the resulting cognitive estrangement. It has developed a language of its own, often paratactic (although both the New Wave in the 70s and the New Weird in the 2000s borrowed the baroque and the grotesque from the fantastic. see Csiscerey-Ronay Jr, 2008, 188-194). To people this world, sf has developed what Clute has termed the competent character: the focalizer/actant who understands his or her own world and feels no need to explain its strangenesses to us; who lives in the supra-mimesis or what Stockwell terms the world of invisible metaphor. Once this is achieved, then there is space to imagine a world which has no edges, where the story continues beyond the end of the page, as in what Parrinder calls epic fables, implying a much fuller world and history beyond that described in the story. However, one of the difficulties which early writers faced was how to end the short story. It is in this matter of endings, that the most distinctive aspects of the classic science fiction short story emerge, for the science fiction short story has a trajectory.

Early future war stories ended with the defeat of the enemy; the time traveller returns to the present with perhaps a warning but certainly the future left intact. Invention stories ended when the invention blew up, never to be retrieved.1 More than one critic has argued that this approach was rooted in a lack of faith in science, and certainly its persistence in film and television science fiction supports this argument; but there is also the narratological argument that 1930s authors, emigrating from genres such as crime, western and romance, were conditioned to forms of fiction in which any change which triggered a story (such as a dead body) was unravelled in such a way that the dead body was tidied neatly away, in science fiction this could result in a form of “anti-science fiction” which Heinlein argued was a rejection of “reason and reasoned action” (1959, 45). There was no consequence other than prison.

In science fiction, particularly in the short story. resolution is not the end of the story, it is the beginning, for sf resolutions are about change and consequence. Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954) begins in a world which has solved all its energy problems; its consequence is a world in which the poor are forced to consume, and the rich flaunt their wealth through ostentatious austerity; the resolution, to invent robots to consume, triggers more consequence. Without consequence, any sf tale is incomplete. Consequence in science fiction is the rippling out of effect, the quantum butterfly that flaps its wings and triggers economic panic on the far side of the world. It is the application of reason to the world. The structural trajectories that have proven most popular are the closing sense of inevitability; the snail shell; and the process of entropy or unraveling.


The Closing Sense of Inevitability.

Many of the early thought experiment stories are a process of exploring the consequences of a linear process to the bitter end. This is what is meant by “extrapolation” and “speculation”: a journey down “a curve, a path, a trend, into the future by extending its present direction and continuing the shape it has displayed in its past performance” (Heinlein, 1952). A product of modernist thinking, in this form of the sf short story there is a sense of the closing in on the inevitable. It is classically an exercise in reason.

One such short story is Brian Aldiss’s “Who Can Replace a Man?” (1958) which may be inspired by Kipling’s “Her Majesty’s Servants” (1894). In this story the machines on a farm discover the systems are breaking down, jobs left undone and gaps opening up in the farm system. After some discussion the robots sort out a decision-making hierarchy according to the class of their brains. The radio operator, the Class Three Brain, decides “we will go to a city and rule it. Since man no longer rules us, we will rule ourselves. To rule ourselves will be better than being ruled by man.” (Gunn, 255). As they travel they hear machines are fighting: the way this is represented embeds in the stilted grammar a converging narrative which also represents the limited logic of the machine.


“We cannot fight a Class One brain,” said the two Class Four tractors in unison.

“What does the brain look like?” asked the field minder.

“It is the city’s information centre,” the operator replied. “Therefore it is not mobile.”

“Therefore it could not move.”

“Therefore it could not escape.”

“It would be dangerous to approach it.”

“I have a good supply of fissionable blasting materials.”

“There are other machines in the city.”

“We are not in the city. We should not go into the city.”

“We are country machines.”

“Therefore we should stay in the country.”

There is more country than city.”

Therefore there is more danger in the country.”

(Gunn v3, 255; my bold)

In this short piece we see the rigid exercise of reason, the “if this, then that” exercise of logic: logic misleads; if there is more country than city then there must ipso facto be more danger in the country than in the city. Although this story pre-dates most of modern cognitive neuroscience, Aldiss hits on a key issue, that human decision making is powered not by logic but by emotion (see the research of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio). If humans are for anything in this story, they are precisely for rupturing a narrative of reason and logic, what makes a man unique is his ability to rupture the inevitable and change the narrative trajectory. At the end of the story they find a man:


“Get me food,” he croaked.

“Yes, Master,” said the machines. “Immediately!” (258)


Two narratives close in on each other: the narrative of the robots, settled into a rigid hierarchy and the unseen narrative of humans and robots. Once they converge, the outcome is inevitable, closed, suffocating. It is the only Reasonable ending.

The Reasonable ending, the ending that can be reasoned if considered with a clear eye, is a key structural trope in sf, the target at the end of both Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” (1948 and Harry Harrison’s “The Streets of Ashkelon” (1962). In these stories belief and reason close in on each other.

One of the first of the stories that Lisa Yaszek has termed “Housewife Heroines”, Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” (1948) deploys a mode in which socialised gendered behaviour closes down the direct observation that supports scientific thinking. Maggie is eight months pregnant, separated from her husband Hank, who is a weapons designer. A nuclear war is ongoing — the impression is with small scale weaponry — and Maggie is doing her best not to worry about possible radiation effects on her baby. The story is told as point and counterpoint, tightly focused through direct thought or reverie, and in letters Maggie writes to her husband. Each time an issue is raised, Maggie, obeying the injunction to women “not to worry”, dismisses it from her mind.


No accidents. No direct hits. At least none that had been officially released for publication. Now. Maggie, don’t get started on that. No accidents. No hits. Take the newspaper’s word for it. (Wesleyan, 212).

The radiologist said Hank’s job couldn’t have exposed him. And the bombed area we drove past… No, no. Stop it now! Read the social notes or the recipes, Maggie girl. (213).

As the story moves on, Maggie’s dismissal of the news extends to the dismissal of more authoritative input, but Maggie’s rhetoric of trust disguises the shift. When she complains that the nurse is “obsessed with mutations” (215) we accept the analysis. When she writes to Hank “the doctor came in to “explain” everything to me, and talked a lot of nonsense, most of which I am sure no one could have understood, any more than I did.’ We are reassured because Maggie has continually demonstrated trust. By the end of the story even the evidence of her own eyes is superseded by her determination to ignore the significance that her daughter Henrietta can speak at four months old. Hank’s return ruptures this world: when he sees his baby crawl in what we might now call a sleep sack, he reaches to release her hands and finds only a wiry, muscled body. The story ends as we have been warned it might, “His fingers tightened on his child — Oh God, she didn’t know…” (220) But Maggie has, from the beginning, been enjoined not to know, to trust in authority, to have faith in her intuitions as a mother, to actively reject the evidence of her own eyes, experience or even the news. To have faith…

At the start of Harry Harrison’s “The Streets of Ashkelon” (1962), Garth is a lone trader on Wesker’s World, where he has discovered a species that is intelligent but without superstition. The Weskers are literalists. They have no concept of metaphor or analogy or double meanings. They are however, hungry for knowledge. Unfortunately Father Mark, a priest and missionary from an unnamed denomination, ruptures this idyll. Despite Garth’s arguments, the priest, locked into his belief that the story he tells is a truth, proceeds on. Garth can only watch as they absorb Mark’s teaching. Only when Irin, one of the Weskers, approaches him and asks him to come to Church “because he says one thing is true and you say another is true and both cannot be true at the same time” does Garth set out his competing stall of ideas. Garth believes that in narrating the story he can control it. He is wrong. Harrison constructs a classic convergence, demonstrating that both human characters are actually asking the same thing of the Weskers.

Father Mark and Garth debate. But the Weskers, unlike humans, cannot hold in mind the Red Queen’s two impossible ideas. They are hamstrung between metaphor and mimesis because both the religious and the scientific argument require them to take matters on trust. Thus, “In Trader Garth’s books there is the universe which we have not seen, and it goes on without God, for he is mentioned nowhere” and “In Father Mark’s books He is everywhere and nothing can go without him. One of these must be right and the other must be wrong.” (Gunn, 280) The Weskers are both Socratic and Baconian: if God created the universe who created God? is to them a logical question that cannot be answered with the reductive “Nothing created God, since He is the Creator.” Enjoined to have faith they respond “How can we believe without proof?” or observation (280). Here, Garth makes a misstep. “I can tell you to use the scientific method which can examine all things — including itself — and give you answers that can prove the truth or falsity of any statement.” (280) But the Weskers have not themselves seen the evidence of the non-miraculous world that Garth has taught them. The absence of superstition is not the equivalent to an inherent understanding of the scientific method. Harrison has misled us quite deliberately and for all that this story is often taken as a challenge to religion, its narrative structure suggests it is also a challenge to the idea (common in much 1940s science fiction) that the scientific method can be learned solely from books.

The Weskers, literal to the last, take Garth at his word. Although they have little experience of scientific experiment, they choose this moment to make their first. They crucify Father Mark. In the last pages all metaphor is stripped away, and Harrison slows down into the ultra-attentive, visceral mode of classic gothic horror, with the precision of the ‘objective’ scientific experiment.


Of course the Weskers were marvelous craftsmen… There was the cross, planted firmly on the top of a small hill, the gleaming metal spikes, the hammer. Father Mark was stripped and draped in a carefully pleated loincloth. They led him out of the Church. (281)

It is one thing to talk of crucifixion and look at the gentle carved bodies in the dim light of prayer. It is another to see a man naked, ropes cutting into his skin where he hangs from a bar of wood. And to see the needle-tipped spike raised and placed against the soft flesh of his palm, to see the hammer come back with the calm deliberation of an artisan’s measure stroke. To hear the thick sound of metal penetrating flesh.

Then to hear the screams. (282)


As the story converges, the tension between science and religion, between the rational and the visceral mode come to a head, and scientific discourse takes over until right at the very end it lapses and Garth returns to the language of religion.


“Then we will not be saved? We will not become pure?”

“You were pure,” Garth said, in a voice somewhere between a sob and a laugh, “That’s the horrible, ugly, dirty part of it. You were pure. Now you are….”

“Murderers,” Irin said, and the water ran down from his lowered head and streamed away into the darkness.”


A last, striking irreligious image of a baptism into sin and the short story snaps shut.


The Snail Shell: spiraling inwards.

In the spiral narrative, the construction is claustrophobic and the actors are trapped in a narrative universe in which their ideological beliefs are so fundamental to what it means to be human that they cannot break them even when their existence is in peril. Csiscery-Ronay Jr. calls this the “scientific grotesque” where “the recognition of an embodied, physical anomaly” creates an incongruity between “the familiarity of theme and the oddity of performance’ (191). A classic example is Howard Schoenfeld’s”s “Build Up Logically” (1950). In this story an intradiegetic narration is essential to the construction of story: two characters both appear to be creating the world; one is an author who discovers someone in his world is writing the story he is in. He can control it until the moment when one of his characters takes over the role of creator.


I was in the unheard-of position of having been created by a figment of my own imagination.

‘Our roles are reversed,” Frank said. ‘I’ve not only created you, but all your works, including this narrative. Following this paragraph I will assume my rightful role as author of the story and you will assume yours as a character in it.’

Aspasia’s face blanched.

‘This is impossible,’ he said.

‘Not impossible,’ I said. ‘I’ve done it. I, Frank, have done it, I’m in control of the story.’


The switch is very simple, very neat, and carries the story. The narratological moment of disnarration is the climax of the story.

“The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn is engaged in a narrative epanalepsis, beginning with “the story of our liberation” and ending, several liberations later, with the line “Looking about us, we can say with pardonable pride that we have been about as thoroughly liberated as it is possible for a race and planet to be.” (Wesleyan, 282). On a destroyed earth in which humans race from crater to crater, gasping at the oxygen that sinks into the caverns, an old man tells of the liberation of earth, first by the alien Dendii, who humiliate humans by showing them they are powerless to contribute to a galactic struggle, then by the Troxx who explain they have been deluded and claim to be the rebels of the Protoplasmic alliance resisting the tyrannous Dendii, and who don’t even have to enslave humans, so willing are humans to serve gloriously in war. The susceptibility of humans to the black hat-white hat syndrome creates a see-saw of a story which takes the narrative in ever tightening spirals, reducing the habitable areas of the planet, and locking the characters into both a smaller geographical and narrative space. The elaborate descriptions whose words “are meaningless now” (267) — a proleptic construction of cognitive estrangement — give way to the ritualistic “Suck air, grab clusters”. Language becomes as limited as space, cognition as limited as oxygen.

Locked even further into our own sociobiology and psychology are the humans in James Tiptree Jr’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here in the Cold Hillside,” a story of the human tendency to look outwards, to seek genetic diversity, and to be attracted to the shiny — the ball point pen, the glass beads, the new starship drive — without questioning their utility. The tale begins with a human news reporter approaching a mechanic on a space station, desperate for a story of the exotic to send home to earth. The interviewee looks outward, towards space, towards the alien other, but ends the interview… “Tell them,” he said, turning to go. “Go home and tell them.” (W, 524)

What he wants to tell them is that humans are killing themselves: our desire to breed with the Other was a survival trait once, but when the thing that attracts us is not merely incompatible but deadly, we are trapped in a biological dead end, no longer the “fittest” for the environment. We are enjoined to turn inward towards safety. But as the newspaperman turns, he sees aliens and “ran to squeeze in behind them”, trapped in the next turn of the spiral. The circular structure conflicts with the outward bound drive of both ‘human nature’ and science fiction (Mendlesohn, 2005). As in “The Liberation of Earth” we can construct a narratology of what it is to be human; and to be human in both these stories is to be narratable.

It is no coincidence that these stories are told in the first person, for their construction mirrors the human desire to impose a solpsistic story upon the universe whether it is the me/I of narrative, or the we/us on a wider scale. Robert A. Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” (1959) does both: it is the classic moebius strip of the science fiction story; it manipulates the position of the heterodiegetic narrator to create a metalepsis in which a character is situated in a story within a story and yet is still within one, singular circular narrative. Mary Ellen Ryder offers a very acute analysis of this story, exploring the ways in which clues delay the knowledge that there is only one character, “allowing a condensing of all the enactors into one character through frame overlay only at the very end of the story.” (230)

“All You Zombies” was far from the first story to deploy the grandfather paradox, but this story is about the paradox itself and a way to resolve it. In the story a barkeeper greets the man who walks into his bar as “the Unmarried Mother”. The young man — who is very bitter — makes a living writing confessionals and this is just one of his pseudonyms. Invited to unburden himself he reveals himself as a foundling, but the story takes a turn for the unusual when the barkeeper gives him a nudge to explain why “You have an amazingly sure touch with the woman’s angle.” (326) And he responds, “When I was a little girl —”

The Unmarried Mother grew up as a girl in an orphanage, too plain to be adopted. Fighting off boys (Heinlein, a sexual radical, is clear that the issue is abuse) she preserved her virginity and planned to enter the space hospitality corps as a “Space Angel,” actually a courtesan, a highly respected profession whose members frequently married one of the men they served. Unfortunately one night she meets a slick young man in a park, courts for some weeks, and after she finally sleeps with him discovers that she is pregnant. Disastrous as this is, the real problems start when the baby is born. During an emergency caesarian the surgeon finds two full sets of organs, one male, one female, both immature, although the female set is developed enough to carry a baby once. The surgeon has removed these “and rearranged things so that you can develop properly as a man.” (329) The news is delivered callously and with a certain assumption that the patient will be delighted, and will naturally have her child adopted. She declines, but four days later her baby is stolen from the ward. The protagonist is left bereft of baby, femaleness and profession. Even a life in space is no longer an option as the scar tissue renders her unfit for military service. Taking work as a stenographer, she types up some confession stories and like many a proto-writer before her decides she can do better and begins a life as a confessional writer. But she remains bitter: “I was ruined as a woman can be…I was no longer a woman…and I didn’t know how to be a man.”

The barkeeper offers her a chance to meet the man who seduced her and a job with “high pay steady work, unlimited expense account, your own boss on the job, and lots of variety and adventure” (332) which seems about as implausible as the offer to meet the man. And so, to the tune of I’m My Own Granpaw!.(Dwight Latham, 1947) blaring from the juke box, they depart. And from here I will switch to using the male pronoun for our Unmarried Mother.

The barkeeper takes him into a storeroom, throws a net over both of them and takes them back into the past. He leaves the UM there, moves forward nine months, takes the baby, returns, collects the UM who has by this time seduced himself, and asks him, “Now you know who he is — and after you think it over you’ll know who you are…and if you think hard enough, you’ll figure out who the baby is… and who I am.” (334). The rest of the story is a summary of how recruitment works, what the Temporal Bureau is doing, and a last contemplation.

…I glanced down at the ring on my finger.

The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail, Forever and Ever…I know where I come from — but where did all you zombies come from?

I felt a headache coming on, but a headache powder is one thing I do not take. I did once — and you all went away.

So I crawled into bed and whistled out the light.

You aren’t really there at all. There isn’t anybody but me — Jane — here alone in the dark.

I miss you dreadfully!

The hints, clues and foreshadowing have been there throughout. The first person is the only legitimate way to tell this story. There is no omniscient external narrator because there is nothing external. Jane is object, subject; she is actor and actant; she is both god and god’s people. The story has nowhere to go but the next turn of the spiral in which the Unmarried Mother will become the barkeeper who will snatch baby Jane who will grow up to become the Unmarried Mother who…. And on. The story can only end when the universe ends. Which takes us to our next form, the science fiction of entropy.


Entropy and Unraveling

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system energy can be transferred from one body to another but cannot be destroyed; the Second Law that the entropy of an isolated system not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium. The Third Law is “As temperature approaches absolute zero, the entropy of a system approaches a constant minimum.” And in 1929 Edwin Hubble postulated the expanding universe. These ideas fascinated writers both as a source and a pattern for story.

Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953) is written entirely in the classic sf parataxic mode of short, factual sentences and a focus on the thing to be done. In reality it is a fantasy story — it entirely ignores all of the above — but is constructed with an entropic narratology. In this story entropy — the ending of the universe — can be brought on by magic, by the naming of God. Two technicians are sent up to a monastery in Tibet to run a programme on the most up to date computer that can be bought. The aim of the monks is to collect all the names of god, at which point they believe the world will end. Done manually it will take fifteen thousand years; the technicians believe it can be run on the computer in four days, but they delay it to run in seven days, so that they can be on their way home by the time the monks realise the world isn’t ending.

The story is a classic of the Socratic style beloved by early science fiction writers. Its two person exchanges undermine the idea that dialogue can subvert “show don’t tell”. This is absolutely a “tell” mode.

“I see. You’ve been starting at AAAAAAAAA… and working up to ZZZZZZZZZ…”

“Exactly — though we use a special alphabet of our own. Modifying the electromatic typewriters to deal with this is, of course, trivial. A rather more interesting problem is that of devising suitable circuits to eliminate ridiculous combinations.”


This is a technique commonly known as infodump, which “encode[s] the speaker’s assumption that the hearer will have prior knowledge of, or immediately recognize, the thing that he or she mentions…” (Mandala: 100) Here it delivers both the set up of the story and the sense of a future. The story builds dietically; the proposition is laid out and accumulated. Difficulties faced by the technicians on the ascent — physical and metaphorical — are mirrored by the final section as if time is winding down.


He knew exactly what was happening up on the mountain at this very moment. The High Lama and his assistants would be sitting in their silk robes, inspecting the sheets as the junior monks carried them away from the typewriters and pasted them into the great volumes…

The sky overhead was perfectly clear and ablaze with the familiar, friendly stars.


These ordinary actions set the scene for something extraordinary. As they realise that the final run of the computer is now over, they look up, and in one of the most famous lines in science fiction,


Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.


The world ends, not with a bang but with an unraveling. Not so in Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967), the quintessential science fiction story of entropy, where personal entropy is far messier. Although writers such as Heinlein, Bester, Cordwainer Smith, Pohl and other earlier writers had pointed the way, it was the writers of the New Wave who actualized a Bauhaus approach to science fiction, linking form and function so the structure and language itself render a story, as science fiction.

Sarah Boyle is a housewife; like the woman in the nursery rhyme she has more children than she can count — it could be two, three or five — she has lost track of children, housework, and life. She seeks to resist entropy through categorization and organization of knowledge, yet she is caught in decay. “The floor sweepings include a triangular half of toast spread with grape jelly, bobby pins, a green Band-Aid, flakes, a doll’s eye, dust, dog’s hair and a button.” (418) ; she thinks of the sugar cereal “already hearing the decay set in the little white milk teeth” (417). We can hear the decay in the structure of the story, since we are positioned far back from the action.

Much of the text is detached from the primary narrative world. Sometimes the narration is simultaneous and linear, with no apparent gap between the time of the narration and the time of the event or experience narrated; we go from headings like INSERT FIVE. LOVE to SHOPPING FOR THE BIRTHDAY CAKE to BEFORE THE PARTY to THE BIRTHDAY PARTY to INSERT SIX. WEINER ON ENTROPY. And in an attempt to create order by holding off chaos, Sarah goes shopping and,


…begins to pick out, methodically, deliberately and with a careful ecstasy, one of every cleaning product which the store sells…For some products she accumulates whole little families of containers; a giant Father bottle of shampoo, a Mother bottle, an Older Sister bottle just smaller than the Mother bottle, and a very tiny Baby Brother bottle. (425)


There are 54 separate moveable — because they might appear in any order — sections in this story. Mania and Chaos is bounded by order, dissolution by categorization. In each of the reflections, Sarah tries to hold entropy/decay at bay by listing and categorizing;


“she numbers or letters the things in the room, writing the assigned character on each object. There are 819 separate moveable objects in the living room, counting books.” (419).


Sarah “is passionately fond of children’s dictionaries, encyclopedias, ABCs and all reference books, transfixed and comforted at their simulacra of a complete listing and ordering.” (419) But dictionary definitions are entropic. They break words into other words, meanings into smaller and more tightly defined meanings, they run out of depth, run out of nuance. Sarah’s clearest thoughts are the most paratactic.


(41) She thinks of the end of the world by ice.

(42) She thinks of the end of the world by water.

(43) She thinks of the end of the world by nuclear war. (426)


The parataxis “give[s] the prose the feel of an incantation through parallelism of syntax” (Scott, 49), which we have seen once before in ‘Who Can Replace a Man?’ It is a relentless mode. Entropy is in the spiraling out of control thoughts, yet dissolution has its own imperative: “Wet jelly beans stain all they touch, finally becoming themselves colorless, opaque white, like flocks of tame or sleeping maggots. Plastic favors mount half-eaten pieces of cake.” (427) In contrast, destruction is an active outflow of energy, a strategy to keep entropy at bay, and Zoline layers images of destruction and entropy to emphasise destruction as an act of resistance.


“The sand keeps falling, very quietly, in the egg timer. The old man and woman in the barometer never catch each other. She picks up eggs and throws them into the air. She begins to cry, She opens her mouth. The eggs arch slowly through the kitchen, like a baseball, high high against the spring sky, seen from far away. They go higher and higher in the stillness, hesitate at the zenith, then begin to fall away slowly, slowly, through the fine, clear air.” (429)


Sarah Boyle’s name recalls Boyle’s law in which “for a fixed amount of an ideal gas kept at a fixed temperature, pressure and volume are proportional. Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” (2008) is an explicit exploration of Boyle’s Law.

The paradigm and style of the story is an homage to Jorge Luis Borges’s, “The Library of Babel” (1941) and aims for the same conclusive claustrophobia. Our narrator is a machine anatomist on a machine world. His joints are pistons and cogs, his lungs are exchanged in a daily ritual at the filling station. Fascinated by the mystery of memory, blocked from exploring the brains of the dead because his people are so hard to kill, and because when their brain cases are crushed all that is found are filaments of gold, he prepares to follow in the footsteps of many a Romantic scientist and experiment on himself. He creates a mechanism so he can see his own brain. Lurking in the background is a rumour that a ritual poem designed to last just one hour, has been overrunning the clock mechanisms.

When he opens his brain, the scientist discovers that far from the discs of gold, engraven with memories that his predecessors have imagined, his memory is made of the movement of gold leaves on gold filaments in the air currents in his brain case. His memory is movement. It means that “if the flow of air ever ceases, everything is lost” (W, 750) This is why those who (rarely) run out of air cannot be revived.

In a cascade of connections he realises, the turret clocks are on pendulums, their speed cannot change. But if his memory is driven by air then the speed of thought is the speed of air. If thought is slower, then so too, is air.

Air can neither be created nor destroyed; the total amount of air in the universe remains constant…. But in truth the source of life is a difference in air pressure, the flow of air from spaces where it is thick to those where it is thin. (W, 751).

If people’s thoughts are slowing down, it is because the air is slowing. The act of breathing he realises is “converting air at high pressure to air at low” (752), equalizing the pressure in what they now realise is a closed, not infinite universe. The story demonstrates what Stockwell describes as the classic sf poetic of the “long syntactic addition, co-ordination and compounding” (42) creating a sense of letting loose rather than building up; entropy built into the very recollection.

Eventually, all the air in our universe will be evenly distributed, no denser or more rarefied in one spot than in any other, unable to drive a piston, turn a rotor, or flip a leaf of gold foil. “With every movement of my body, I contribute to the equalization of pressure in our universe. With every thought I have, I hasten the arrival of that fatal equilibrium.” (752).


Language, Dissonance and Construction

As we have seen, we cannot disconnect the poetics of the science fiction short story from the narratology. Language is the root of the thought experiment. The basic “what if” of science fiction, language creates the dissonance of a story and constructs its world. The plot of “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester (1954) is straightforward enough: like Dick Whittington, Vandaleur has inherited nothing but an android with which to make his fortune. Unfortunately every time the temperature goes above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the android commits mayhem and murder. Vandaleur does not understand the trigger and he is not willing to do without the android, for he himself has no skills, so he moves from world to world becoming poorer each time. The story of “Fondly Fahrenheit,” however, is of the gradual confusion of identities; android and man merge to create a third (murderous) personality, a process of literal and figurative transference which is narrated in a conflation of first and third tense. “He doesn’t know which of us I am these days…” (284) He, us, I. Three people, three personalities, two bodies. As the story proceeds it moves between first person and omniscient narrator:


I leaped from the table and turned on the android. I pulled a strap from one of the leather bags and beat the android. It didn’t move.

“I must remind you,” the android said, “that I am worth fifty-seven thousand dollars on the current exchange. I must warn you that you are endangering valuable property.”

“You damned crazy machine,” Vandaleur shouted. (287)


As the story progresses that shift to the first person becomes a warning and an ecoding. Employed to work a furnace, “It sang and slowly poured and poured the molten gold” over its employer “Then I left the workshop and rejoined James Vandaleur in his hotel suite.” (290). Fleeing,Vandaleur consults a psychiatrist, who explains “If you live with a psychotic who projects his sickness upon you, there is a danger of falling into his psychotic pattern” (299) He runs again, but this time the police catch them, the android dying in flames. The focus gets ever more blurred, conflating homodiegetic, heterodiegetic, and extradiegetic narrators as the android goes up in flames. In the last paragraph the focalization blends entirely.


Vandaleur didn’t die. I got away. They missed him while they watched the android caper and die. But I don’t know which of us he is these days…But we know one truth. We know they are wrong. The new robot and Vandaleur know that because the new robot’s started twitching too.” (302)


Language slippage can be a very effective way of conjuring the historical/futurological context that allows the author to elide technical world building. Science fiction can deploy language to create estrangement and consequence — the substitution of neologisms for real words in ways that deepen the emergence into the text and the future envisaged. It can also use rhythm and meter. In Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965) the syncopation of the words, in a congeries of alliteration and onomatopeia, creates the sense of the other.


Jelly beans! Millions and billions of purples and yellows and greens and licorice and grape and raspberry and mint and round and smooth and crunchy outside and soft-mealy inside and sugary and bouncing jouncing tumbling clittering clattering skittering fell on the heads and shoulders and hardhats and carapaces of the Timkin workers, tinkling on the slidewalk and bouncing away and rolling about underfoot and filling the sky on their way down with all the colors of joy and childhood and holidays… (W, 371)

And interrupts the clear, paratactic delivery of this time bound word in which,

The shift was delayed by seven minutes.

They did not get home for seven minutes.

The master schedule was thrown off by seven minutes. (371)


The hypotactic contrast of the intensity of focus and elaboration, a mode much closer to the Gothic, estranges us both from the primary world (ours) and the secondary. The language throws us from the reason and rationality of the science fictional future of the 1950s in which we are supposed to admire efficiency and order, into the counterculture futures of the 1960s in which disorder is the truly human. It tells us not only that we are in the future, but which future we are in, and in aa world bound by clockwork, offers the rupture and disruption at the centre of the story.

The same is true of Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million” (1966) Here a combination of the direct address, neologism and frenetic style deliberately defamiliarises. The story begins with a once upon a time, “which will be about a thousand years from now” there were a boy, a girl and a love story” except “Now although I haven’t said so much so far, none of it is true.” (W, 380) All omniscient narrators are liars, the story is told by an omniscient narrator, the omniscient narrator is a bald faced liar. The story denies assumption after assumption, beginning with the physical and moving on to the moral and the emotional: the girl has a tail, a pelt and gill slits, the courtship takes place in seconds, and the parties part to enjoy each other’s taped, stored identities in the privacy of their own environments which in his case is “adrift on a sponson city a few hundred yards over her head” (W, 384). From the beginning, instead of drawing you in the homodiegetic narrator goes on the attack and expects you to respond accordingly;


You won’t care much for this story if you don’t grasp these facts at once. If, however you will make the effort, you’ll likely enough find it jam-packed, chock-full and tip top crammed with laughter tears and poignant sentiment which may, or may not, be worth while. The reason the girl was not a girl was that she was a boy. How angrily you recoil from the page! You say, who the hell wants to read about a pair of queers?” (W, 380)


The rhetoric sucks you in by pushing you away. This rhetorical trick allows Pohl to get away with straight info dump. He can discuss a future in which “If we find a child with an aptitude for music we give him a scholarship to Julliard. If they found a child whose aptitudes were for being a woman, they made him one.” (W, 381) The story insistently tells us what we don’t want to know, forcing us to accept that our repulsion is contextual “you — with your after-shave lotion and your little red car, pushing papers across a desk all day and chasing tail all night — tell me, just how the hell do you think you would look to Tiglath-Pileser, say, or Attila the Hun?”.

We are tempted into the future with language, we are estranged from our present every bit as much by language. In the stories explored there is a real difference between the forms of English used that matches the structural trajectories. Generally the convergent stories used parataxis, their inevitability built with plain bricks and mortar into walls of inevitability. Linguistic play in these stories emphasises convergece by using ambiguities in English to confuse gender, focaliser and perception. In contrast the entropic stories all employ hypotaxis, using a slow, measured accumulation to delay the inevitable heat death of the universe of story. All of these techniques help to understand how the (highly controversial) prose poem/short story “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” (Apex Magazine on-line, 2013) was recognised by the voters at the 2014 Hugo Awards as one of the outstanding sf stories of the year, despite the complete absence of anything resembling a science fiction plot. It is a love letter, written as pure accretive speculation…. If you were a dinosaur, “You’d stand on stage, talons digging into the floorboards” “Your nostrils would flare as you inhaled the night” “If we lived in a world of magic…then you would be a dinosaur my love”. The story accretes and accumulate the ifs until the most absurd and ultimate if, “I’d trust in your teeth and talons to keep you/me/us/safe now and forever” from the real world, a rupture from the world far greater than the possibility that geneticists might code a dinosaur.



The science fiction short story relies on a plot which emphasises consequence, and techniques that explore how to play out that consequence. The key trajectories of these techniques are linear convergence, closing spirals, and a running down or unraveling. These trajectories are constructed through a writing strategy in which language estranges and constructs new meaning. A successful science fiction short story is an exercise in cognition and reader collaboration. It has a place to go, and intends to take you with it.



Works Cited

Aldiss, Brian W. ‘Who Can Replace a Man?’ (1958), in The Road to Science Fiction Volume 3: From Heinlein to Here, ed. James Gunn, Clarkston, CA: White Wolf Publishing, 1979, pp. 251-62.

Bester, Alfred. ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’ (1954), in The Wesleyan Anthology, ed. Arthur B. Evans et al., pp. 283-302.

Chiang, Ted. ‘Exhalation’ (2008), The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, ed. Arthur B. Evans et al., eds, pp. 742-756.

Clarke, Arthur C. ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ (1953), The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1, ed. Robert Silverberg, New York: Avon, 1970, pp. 515-22.

Ellison, Harlan. ‘“Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman’ (1965), in The Wesleyan Anthology, ed. Arthur B. Evans et al., pp. 367-78.

Evans, Arthur B., Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham and Carol McGuirk, eds, The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2010.

Gunn, James, ed., From Heinlein to Here: The Road to Science Fiction. Vol. 3. Clarkston, CA: White Wolf Publishing, 1979.

Harrison, Harry. ‘The Streets of Ashkelon’ (1962), The Road to Science Fiction Volume 3: From Heinlein to Here, ed. James Gunn, pp. 271-83.

Heinlein, Robert A. ‘“All You Zombies —’” (1959), in The Wesleyan Anthology, ed. Arthur B. Evans et al, pp. 324-336.

Merril, Judith. ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948), in The Wesleyan Anthology, ed. Arthur B. Evans et al., pp. 211-20.

Pohl, Frederik. ‘Day Million’ (1966), in The Wesleyan Anthology, ed. Arthur B. Evans et al., pp. 379-84.

Schoenfeld, Howard, ‘Build up Logically’ (1950), in The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, ed. Brian Aldiss, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, pp. 292-302.

Silverberg, Robert, ed. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.Vol. 1. New York: Avon Books, 1970.

Swirsky, Rachel, ‘If You Were a Dinosaur My Love’ (2013), Apex, March 2013: URL http://www.apex-magazine.com/if-you-were-a-dinosaur-my-love/.

Tenn, William, ‘The Liberation of Earth’ (1953), in The Wesleyan Anthology, ed. Arthur B. Evans et al., pp. 266-82.

Zoline, Pamela, ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ (1967), in The Wesleyan Anthology, ed. Arthur B. Evans et al., pp. 414-29.


Works Cited: Non-Fiction

Bould, Mark, ‘Language and Linguistics’, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint, London and New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 225-35.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Delany, Samuel R., The Jewel Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, New York: Berkley Windhover, 1977.

Heinlein, Robert A., ‘On the Writing of Speculative Fiction’ (1947), in Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing, ed. Lloyd Arthur Esbach, London: Dennis Dobson, 1965, pp. 11-20.

Huntingdon, John, Rationalizing Genius: Ideological Strategies in the Classic American Science Fiction Short Story, New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Kincaid, Paul, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, Harold Wood, Essex: Beccon Publications, 2008.

Mandala, Susan, Language in Science Fiction and Fantasy: The Question of Style, London: Continuum, 2010.

Mendlesohn, Farah, ‘Iain M. Banks’s Excession’, in A Companion to Science Fiction, ed. David Seed, Oxford: Blackwell, 2005, 556-66.

Nye, David E., American Technological Sublime, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Rieder, John, ‘On Defining SF or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History’, Science Fiction Studies 37.2 (2010), pp. 191-209.

Ryder, Mary Ellen, ‘I Met Myself Coming and Going: Co(?)-Referential Noun Phrases and Point of View in Time Travel Stories’, Language and Literature: Journal of the Poetics and Linguistics Association 12.3 (2003), pp. 213-32.

Scott, Jeremy, The Demotic Voice in Contemporary British Fiction, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Stockwell, Peter. The Poetics of Science Fiction, Harlow: Longman, 2000.

Shippey, Tom, ‘Hard Reading: The Challenges of Science Fiction’, in A Companion to Science Fiction, ed. David Seed, Oxford: Blackwell, 2005, 11-26.

Yaszek, Lisa, Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2008.

This paper was written for pure fun. I offered it to a magazine who accepted it subject to corrections, and then I am ashamed to admit I never made them. The paper just sat there. But I published it on Academia.edu, and spread it by twitter, and a friend of Suniti Namjoshi’s picked it up, and I got to meet someone whose work I had adored since I was a kid, and to interview her for the British Science Fiction Association. Nothing is ever wasted.


Suniti Namjoshi’s Fables and Cross-genre Knowingness.




Suniti Namjoshi is a poet and fabulist, her best know work is, perhaps, The Blue Donkey Fables (date). A Hindu born in India and educated in a Protestant missionary school, she emigrated to Canada for her PhD studies (after first working in the Indian Civil Service) where she took Canadian citizenship and later migrated to the UK. She now lives in Devon with her partner Gillian Handscombe. Like many migrant writers her fiction draws on the visual images and the myth traditions of a number of cultures, but particularly the myth traditions of classicial Greece. This has left her vulnerable to accusations that she prefers the West to the East. This accusation has been extended to some of her attitudes — she is a sceptic, a questioner. In her poem ‘Rationale’ Namjoshi writes:


Perhaps creation is purely accidental?

Are the stars arranged in sets

Do they come in a jewel box?

If God were a merchant I could deal with Him

And come away feeling pleasantly cheated.

My God is rock-faced. He does not move.

Perhaps if you pushed, He’d topple over.


Her critic Dwivedi (1984), responds: “She is out to find fault not only with the creation but also with the Creator. I, for one, know several men of eminence who at an advanced age repented for such a malevolent attitude and corrected themselves at long last…Let us hope Namjoshi will also regret her ill-conceived and ill-digested notions of the universe, God and Man at a later stage when she retires from the active service and concentrates minutely on the vital issues of existence. She has, in fact-written another poem — “It’s a Quality of the Gods” — which is simply horrible to think of….’It’s a quality of the gods/To see a creature with its back broken/And be unmoved….’ (Dwivedi, 234). While Dwivedi lauds those female poets (and his concern is specifically with the femaleness of poets) who describe and accept oppression, he regards as western Namjoshi because she questions why such oppression/repression should exist. We will return to this point later.

There doesn’t seem to be much criticism on Namjoshi but those critics who have been attracted to her work respond in much the same mode as Dwivedi, in that they look for the message of her work and whether they agree with it. Her fables, written mostly in the late 1970s and the early 1980s tapped into a popular trend among feminist writers to rework old tales in ways which reversed the patriarchal messages (see also Sara Maitland, Michelene Wandor and others) so that for many readers (including myself), it is the new message which attracted the initial interest.

However, while Dwivedi does have a point that Namjoshi often looks to the West for her stories, if we go below the surface to the structure, the narratology of her tales, her fables demonstrate a cross cultural dynamic. The how of what she does may be more interesting in this context than the why.

What I want to argue is that there are at least three narratologies underpinning Namjoshi’s prose work: a feminist narratology, a narratology of prejudice, and a traditional Hindu narratology. If we were sure what it looked like, we might be able to identify a narratology of the fantastic (Clute’s grammar of the fantastic (thinning, wrongness, recognition, and healing do not seem to work here).

The feminist narratology we can see in Namjoshi’s work deploys the saturnalia and is common to the traditions of many oppressed groups. For a moment within the confines of the story the world is turned upside down. This saturnalia informs the work of Gerd Brantenburg, Sara Maitland, Alison Fell, Sheila Ortiz Taylor and other feminist writers of the mid-1980s, and is evident in sections of Namjoshi’s novels, Conversations with a Cow and The Mothers of Maya Diip. In both of these the heroines find themselves dealing with role reversals in which they take on the patriarchal role. An indication that Namjoshi is uncomfortable with this as a critical approach is that none of her heroines like the oppressor position. However Namjoshi’s response is less the solution than the question. It isn’t so much that she wants to turn the world upside down, as to question the premise that there is a proper way up. A nice short example is her Cinderella story.


And Then What Happened?


The prince married Cinderella (it pays to have such very small feet.) But soon they started squabbling. ‘You married me for my money,’ was the Prince’s charge. ‘You married me for my looks,’ was C’s reply. ‘But your looks will fade, whereas my money will last. Not a fair bargain.’ ‘No,’ said Cinderella and simply walked out.



Feminist Fables (London: Sheba Feminist Publishers, 1981. p.121)


The story asks the readers to think about the consequences. The idea of audience as passive, story teller as active is shaken. What this does is to challenge our idea that we should regard the storying of our lives as powerful. This is repeated in “Complaint”.




Two knights in a forest. It’s early in May. Bright sunlight filters through the leaves. A damsel in distress is weeping quietly. One of the knights has abducted the damsel. The other is her lover. The knights are fighting. Her lover wins. But the problem is that the damsel in distress has already been raped. The knight, her lover, is greatly distressed. How can he marry her? He grieves bitterly.

Because of India (London: Onlywomen Press, 1989. p. 80).



In “And Then What Happened” Cinderella does not win, she simply decides the game isn’t worth playing. The damsel in “Complaint” hasn’t yet figured this out. Namjoshi tells us that walking away from the game is actually a very powerful thing to do. In The Blue Donkey Fables, she develops this strategy into an entire archetype.

The Blue Donkey can be considered as a variation on the trickster figure but Blue Donkey does not play tricks on people, rather she manoeuvres them into a logical feedback loop. The first example of this, in the first of the Blue Donkey Stories, is rather crude. A blue donkey lives by a red bridge. The local councillors decide this is inartistic and demand the donkey change colour, although there is a division between those who want to demand the donkey change to the purest white, and those who demand reasonableness, and that the donkey become grey. Buried here is a sly dig that if one compromises, one can lose sight of the unreasonableness of the original demand. But the donkey refuses anyway:


‘Can’t and won’t,’ replied the donkey. ‘There you see,’ cried half the populace. ‘Obviously wilful!’ ‘No, no,’ cried the other half. ‘Patently flawed!’ And they began to dispute among themselves


The donkey has done nothing but be herself. Her refusal to engage in the debate leads them to argue around her, which is what they were doing anyway. The blue donkey’s resistance is philosophical judo, forcing the prejudiced to argue with themselves. The tale ends:


Look again,’ advised the donkey. And so they did; they looked and argued and squabbled and argued and after a while most of them got used to the blueness of the donkey and didn’t notice it anymore. But a few remained who maintained strongly that blueness was inherent, and a few protested that it was essentially intentional. And there still a few others who managed to see — though only sometimes — that the Blue Donkey was only herself and therefore beautiful. These last occasionally brought her a bunch of blue flowers which she put in a vase.

The Blue Donkey Fables(London: The Women’s Press, 1988, 1-2)


As the Blue Donkey tales expand, the donkey becomes The Blue Donkey. She becomes such a crowd pleaser that in order to get some peace she retires, only to find there are rumours she has died. When she tries to correct those, a sect called the Neo-Resurrectionists appears, “Their colours were a militant grey on a field of azure; their motto, ‘Truth is stranger…’” (“Curtain”) The demand for her stories are such that in “The Last Word” she takes to inventing them. But among these comments about truth and the power of legend, is this constant narrative of resistance.

In “Dusty Distance” the Blue Donkey sets out to make her fortune. It is structured as the kind of classic fairy tale collected by Andrew Lang. The Blue Donkey meets first,


…a woman who offered her a carrot, a place to stay, and an occupation. ‘No thank you,’ replied the Blue Donkey. ‘You see, I’m a poet, and I have a long way to go.’ ‘What is a poet?’ enquired the woman. This so disconcerted the Blue Donkey that she muttered and mumbled and managed to utter a hasty goodbye and marched onwards. In consequence she nearly ran down a fellow wayfarer.


The fellow wayfarer is looking for life to chop it up put it in pies. He considers himself a poet and her merely a bit of Life and he eyes her speculatively. She flees and meets a beautiful lady in a wood.


As the Blue Donkey approached, the Lady looked up and smiled at her. ‘Hello,’ said the Blue Donkey. ‘What are you reading?’ ‘Poetry,’ sighed the Lady. ‘I think poetry is so beautiful. I feel I could live on poetry and fresh air for ever.’ The Blue Donkey edged closer. ‘Well, as it happens,’ she ventured diffidently, ‘I am a poet. Perhaps you would like me to recite some of my verse?’ ‘Oh. Oh no,’ the Lady replied hastily, then she recovered herself. ‘The fact is,’ she explained, ‘that though I have studied many languages and my French and German are both excellent, I have never mastered Blue Donkese. And though I have no doubt whatsoever that your poems are excellent, I fear they would fall on untutored ears.’ ‘But please, I speak English,’ The Blue Donkey could hear herself sounding plaintive. ‘Oh,’ murmured the Lady. ‘But surely as a Blue Donkey, integrity requires that you paint the world as it appears to you. And consider: what have a lady and a donkey have in common?’

Nothing at all,’ said the Blue Donkey sadly and she turned away and retraced her steps. At last she came to the door of the woman she had first encountered. ‘Please,’ she enquired humbly, ‘would you settle for a part-time worker for half a carrot?’ (24-25)


The Blue Donkey has encountered the challenge of the “universal” which somehow only includes certain themes and issues. To quote one of Namjoshi’s critics, talking about Indian “poetesses” generally, “These writers seem to be more prompted by an inner urge of self-expression than by a quest of identity. They seem to suffer from an insular outlook and a narrow range, as they have failed to voice forcefully hopes and fears, joys and miseries, of the common man in India. They woefully lack the national and political consciousness…(Dwivedi, 1984: 26) Namjoshi’s response is less to compromise than to find a chink in the world machine.

But even the Blue Donkey can succumb to the power of the hegemonic. In two poems, “Transit Gloria” and “Thunder and Lightening” we have a challenge and response. In the first a zoologist explains, kindly but gently to the Blue Donkey why donkeys are not heroic. They aren’t big, brave, loud or kill people. The Blue Donkey tries to refute this. Her grandmother, Shanti, was heroic because she was intelligent. Although the Blue Donkey responds at the end that to be heroic she clearly needs to be stupid, she has lost the argument, she has inadvertently allowed the zoologist to define the parameters of success, and as the start of “Thunder and Lightening” indicates, the Blue Donkey has internalised the repression, even declares it — semi proudly — to her friend Suniti. Suniti responds with mockery.


‘Once upon a time there was a Heroic Donkey whose mane grazed the heavens whenever she stood up, whose polished black hooves sparked thunder and lightening when she rampaged about, and whose trumpet-like braying hit the moon and bounced right back.’

The Blue Donkey was looking astonished. Suniti smiled. ‘There. What do you think of her?’ she asked.

‘Noisy beast,’ replied the Blue Donkey. Then she smiled back.


This time the Donkey gets it. Real resistance is to point out the sheer absurdity of the rules.⁠^^1 Subsequent Blue Donkey tales follow this pattern. To sum up the narratalogic pattern of a Blue Donkey fable,


Pattern A.

p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey is confronted by a challenge to her identity,

p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey argues or does not

p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey opts out while pointing out that what is “universal” is merely a game.


p<>{color:#000;}. This last stage can also be worked to create a narratology of prejudice. One of the difficulties for people fighting oppression has always been what to do with those who support you but either are not themselves part of the same culture or who choose to identify differently. Namjoshi deals with this directly. In a poem called “Knights and Ladies” people change roles between knights, troubadors, ladies, and finally women. But in the last line, one turns to another and reminds her “you were a knight, but I was always a Lady.” Underneath the surface solidarity are the currents of prejudice. Namjoshi’s Blue Donkey devises a narratology to deal with this as well. The pattern above mutates:


Pattern B

p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey is confronted by unexpected support

p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey discovers this support to be based on “orientalism”

p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey finds a solution which forces the supporter and ourselves to consider the nature of the support we offer.


Two examples of this are the story of the tiger who wishes to become a disciple and the repentant grey donkey. In the first story, the Blue Donkey discovers the tiger is scaring off her friends, and that the tiger is also rather proud of her own uniqueness as a tiger-follower of a donkey. Her solution is to despatch the tiger to minister to tigers — go search the mote in your own eye. “The Sinner” is much more uncomfortable.


The Sinner


One afternoon as the Blue Donkey was reciting some verse before an audience, an ordinary grey donkey marched up to her, fell at her feed and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Sister, I have sinned! I seek absolution.’ The Blue Donkey was most embarrassed. She bent down and whispered hurriedly, ‘Oh do get up. As for sinning, please, that’s quite all right’. ‘But you don’t understand,’ the grey donkey moaned: ‘You are my sister and it is against you I have sinned.’ Now the Blue Donkey was perfectly sure that the donkey at her feet was not her sister. ‘Please,’ she said politely, ‘there must be some mistake. I am not your sister. Indeed, I don’t think we’ve met. So you see, there’s no need to moan. You can’t have sinned.’ ‘Oh yes I have.’ The donkey at her feet refused to budge. ‘I have been snotty and snobbish and often thought to myself that I despise blue donkeys and would never go near one or have one for a friend.’ ‘Well there you are.’ The Blue Donkey was losing patience. ‘That’s an excellent reason for removing yourself.’ ‘But you must listen. I’ve changed completely,’ the grey donkey wailed. ‘I believe in sisterhood. I’m going to be your friend.’ The Blue Donkey hesitated; there were limits, she decided, even to good manners. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘No. That won’t do at all.’ ‘What? After everything I said? Who exactly do you think you are?’ The grey donkey was beside herself. ‘Well,’ the Blue Donkey soothed, ‘you asked for absolution but you haven’t done penance. ‘What must I do?’ Fall at the feet of the other donkeys here and explain to them — as you did to me — that you excuse their greyness.’ ‘But — I don’t understand.’ The Blue Donkey pushed her away. ‘Why let that stop you? They, I am sure, will make you understand.’ (36)


This time the Blue Donkey has “advanced” in her technique: she recognises this kind of abasement for the control it actually is. Accepting the “repentance” of the grey donkey, would be to accept that it is the grey donkey’s story — her own life and life issues would have been appropriated, and she herself would become a “cause”. What is interesting about this story is that it rejects the assumption common to folk tales that all alliances are worth having. Instead, “The Sinner” and a non-Blue Donkey tale called “The Monkey and the Crocodiles” suggest that friends and protectors may be the problem not the solution. When the monkey decides to leave her island, her friends the crocodiles offer protection.


‘Don’t go,’ said the crocodiles. ‘But I want to find out and see for myself.’ ‘Beware of the beasts,’ said her friends the crocodiles. The monkey set off. Seven years later she hobbled back. She had lost her tail, six of her teeth, and one eye. ‘Did you find the source of the river Yamuna?’ ‘No,; said the monkey. ‘Did you encounter the beasts?’ ‘Yes,’ said the monkey. ‘What did they look like?’ ‘They looked like you,’ she answered slowly. ‘When you warned me long ago, did you know that?’ ‘Yes,’ said her friends and avoided her eye.

(FF, London: Sheba Press, 1981, 26).

Pattern B has been recapitulated.


I began arguing for a feminist narratology of Namjoshi’s fables, because it was for feminists — and mostly UK and Canadian feminists — that Namjoshi wrote and published Feminist Fables and The Blue Donkey Fables. But Namjoshi builds her feminist and resistance strategies within the narrative patterns of traditional Indian/Hindu story telling.

As Namjoshi’s fables develop, rather than ending in statements of moral position common to, say, Aesop’s fables (don’t crave what you can’t have; the diligent win the day) they have the open ended and ambiguous aspect of the parable. We could trace this to the Christian parables, were it not that Christianity has formulated very few animal parables, and none where the animal “speaks”. The Hindu tradition, however, has a number of allegorical sequences, the most widely known of which is thePañcatantra. This is a collection of stories arranged in five groups, each one of which is intended to illustrate the application of one major rule of wisdom. (Paniker, 73). In these parables animals and birds act as cartoon figures which highlight the outstanding characteristics to be examined.

There are both similarities and differences to the Hindu fable tradition in Namjoshi’s fables. Quite quickly the same “characters’ emerge as her dominant subjects; the One-eyed Monkey and the Blue Donkey. This reinforces one aspect of the pattern in that they create a developing frame in which the two characters have different takes on the world. Namjoshi mostly uses the One-eyed Monkey when she wants a character to confront the craziness of the world, for example when the One-eyed monkey takes tea with the rabbits. The rabbits are terrified the farmer will discover they have learned how to open the hutch. As she points out, the only real issue is why they haven’t learned what you do after you pick the lock. The One-eyed Monkey becomes the perpetual questioner of other people’s self-imprisonment.

The Blue Donkey is, as I’ve already pointed out, more passive aggressive, an immoveable force who asks why she should accommodate. The One-eyed Monkey moves into other people’s spaces and questions the mechanism of oppression, the Blue Donkey stays resolutely within her own but defends its validity and questions universal rules. The result is that the two frame narratives complement and create recognizably different character models of resistance. As they do so they create character where there was before only archetype. The Blue Donkey and the One-eyed Monkey become fully rounded people in the course of the tales.


All of the Pañcatantra parables are set within a frame narrative of stories devised for the teaching of a king’s children by the scholar Visnu Sarma. Sarma classified his lessons under five headings; Mitrabheda (Estrangement of Friends), Mitrasamprapti (Winning of Friends), Kakolukiyam (Of Crows and Owls), Labdhapranasa (Loss of Gains) and Apariksitakaraka(Rash Deeds). Although this describes the structure of Namjoshi’s Conversations of a Cow rather well (with the cow figuring as the sage) it is less an element of the fables. There is rarely an external narrator, except that all these stories figure as “stories the Blue Donkey told” and we already know that she has decided to become legend. Like the stories told in the Pancatranta there is the sense that they might well be “true” within the borders of the tale.

As the tales develop, the Blue Donkey is herself increasingly figured as sage, and many of the stories become dialogue between her and audience. Chandra Rajan describes the Pañcatantra. stories thus: “Each tale or subtale…has a narrator and an audience and dialogue, together with maxims and precepts and discourses on ethics and polity, all woven into the fabric of the narrative to form a rich pattern.” The Blue Donkey Tales place their maxims and precepts in the space that the Blue Donkey creates between her, her primary audience and the fictional audience that is frequently described, so that, as with “The Sinner” the words she gives to the annoyingly repentant grey donkey are a story told to both the audience within the tale and the readers of the fable. Paniker argues, “They are like experiments conducted in a laboratory to show how certain things operate.” (77) In this they have a great deal in common with the folk tale in which the role of the “trickster” is frequently to experiment with ways to fool the powerful (ie persuading a hungry tiger to try to “soften” a tortoise by placing it in water [Indian] or from the Brer Rabbit tradition, persuading Brer Wolf to attack the tar baby). Namjoshi’s Blue Donkey Tales tales function very similarly.


Pattern D.


p<>{color:#000;}. Blue Donkey is patronised by the hegemony.

p<>{color:#000;}. Blue Donkey tricks the hegemony into agreeing with her in order to gain the “sexiness” that association with the outsider can gift.

p<>{color:#000;}. Blue Donkey shows us how to make the hegemony look ridiculous when it substitutes cultural appropriation for genuine respect.


Blue Donkey is a trickster in a world in which oppression has taken on new subtleties. She is also a mocker of hegemonic assumptions and unquestioned ideologies. Compare “Transit Gloria” and “Thunder and Lightening” with the following Hindu folk tale.


A man gave up the world and became a sanyasi. All he had was a thin loincloth to hide his shame and to control his sexual desire.

But every night his sleep was disturbed by a mouse who gnawed at his loincloth. So he acquired a cat and brought it up. The cat needed milk. So he found a generous man who gave him a cow. After all some one had to milk the cow and take care of it. So he needed a woman. Once he found a woman, he felt like marrying her, and did. So he didn’t need the loincloth anymore.


All of these tales are structured as escalators, and just as Suniti in “Thunder and Lightening” leaves us to pause over the motives of the poet in “Transit Gloria” so does this folk tale suggest that the sanyasi’s motives might have been more to do with worldly disappointment than sacrifice.


Pranik suggests that Indian narratives generally show evidence of the following elements: Interiorisation, serialisation, fantastisation, cyclalisation, allegorisation, annonymisation, elascisation of time, spatialisation, stylisations and improvisation. He doesn’t argue that all elements must be found in Indian narrative, or that these terms are unique to Indian narrative, but we can see all but the first (interiorisation) in Namjsoshi’s fables, running underneath the feminist narratologies we have seen.

Serialisation: “episodes are often like the detachable compartments of a train or tram…which makes it collapsible as and when needed, and provides an openness to the text” (8). With the exception of the first and possibly “Transit Gloria” and “Thunder and Lightening”, these stories are train carriages, which stand alone but need to be linked for the movement of ideas. Similarly, the idea of cyclicalisation, that “the art of narration is an attempt to construct tales in accordance with…fluid notion [s] of forward and backward movement…totally ignoring all man-made laws of historical progress” (10) allows Namjoshi to place her tales in a no-when, with no before or after. The Blue Donkey’s tales of her own life are facilitated similarly — lies can be told because well, they might happen. Time in the Indian/Hindu narrative is elastic and “is more psychological in character than logical…” (14); of far greater significance in the tale is place and the description of place, The Blue Donkey’s town, the One-Eyed Monkey’s island, are each described in a ritual, which is more specific about place, leaving the exact time imprecise…thus:

Once upon a time, in the southern land flourished the fair city of Mahilaropya, rivalling in splendour even Amaravati, City of the Gods. (15)


And the escalator which we saw earlier, is clearly the built structure of ritual style on which is built the spiralled improvisation.

As for the role of a fantastic narratology, Pranik argues that “The plasticity of the legend or myth which makes for the lovely interplay of the imagination has encouraged the dominance of fantasy in the Indian narrative mould…The author fantasizes, so does the reader, so that fantasy becomes an interface that the reader’s imagination shares with the author. The reader is allowed to be as creative as the author… Fantasization is thus a privileged enterprise in the Indian narrative. (8); “The very grammar of communication is heavily weighted in favour of fancy and fantasy…All Indian art is imbued with this emplastic imagination which helps one see the world upside down, realising that the very notion of up and down in an absolute sense is absurd.” (9) The rabelesian mold is the fantastic narrative, so that the open ended arguments which the Blue Donkey presents are in Pranik’s narratogy, inseparable from an Indian fantastic tradition.

Namjoshi’s work does, I think, construct new feminist and resistance narratologies, but these are clearly sited within the Indian traditions of fantasation which seem tightly linked to the rabelesian. Indian narratological structures may therefore be particularly suitable for a set of fables which — unlike Aesop’s fables or Christ’s parables — have very little to do with acceptance of the world as it is. If we want to keep thinking in Clute’s terms, the grammar which Namjoshi’s tales construct is of recognition of wrongess, recognition of self, removal/resistance?



Works Cited:

Namjoshi, Suniti, (1985) Conversations of a Cow

Namjoshi, Suniti, (1988) The Blue Donkey Fables.

Namjoshi, Suniti, (1989) The Mothers of Maya Diip

Dwivedi, N. A., Studies in Contemporary Verse: A Collection of Critical Essays on Female Poets, Allahabad: Prakash Book Depot, 1984.

Paniker, K. Ayyappa, Indian Narratology, Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts (no date provided).




Pattern A: challenging hegemony


table<>. <>. |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. The Blue Donkey


Inspired by Marc Chagall,The Blue Donkey.


Once upon a time a blue donkey lived by a red bridge. ‘Inartistic,’ said the councillors who |<>.




Spacialisation | <>. |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. governed that town. ‘A donkey who lives by our bright red bridge must be of the purest and silkiest white or we must request that the said donkey be required to move on.’ The matter soon turned into a |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey is confronted by a challenge to her identity,


| <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. political issue. One party said that donkeys never had been and never would be white and what was asked of the donkey was grossly unfair. If, on the other hand, the donkey were required to be a nondescript grey (instead of a loud and laughable blue) they would be prepared to accept the solution as a reasonable way out. But the opposing party found a fault in their logic. ‘Just because donkeys have never been known to be white,’ they pointed out patiently, ‘it does not follow that a donkey is incapable of achieving whiteness. Your argument imposes an arbitrary limitation on the creature’s potential.’ ‘Good heavens!’ cried the others. ‘Are you suggesting that the donkey’s blueness may be a matter of culpable wilfulness rather than as mere genetic mischance?’ ‘Yes,’ responded the logicians. ‘Let us confront the creature and you can see for yourselves.’ |<>. p<>{color:#000;}.  















| <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. They approached the donkey, who happened to be munching a bright pink carrot which clashed most horribly with the bright red bridge. ‘O Donkey,’ they said, feeling they had better get it over with at once,’ we’d like you to turn an inoffensive grey or else move on.’ ‘Can’t and won’t,’ replied the donkey. ‘There you see,’ cried half the populace. ‘Obviously wilful!’ ‘No, no,’ cried the other half. ‘Patently flawed!’ And they began to dispute among themselves. The donkey was puzzled. ‘I’m a perfectly good donkey,’ she said. ‘What exactly is the matter with you?’ ‘Your blueness troubles us,’ wailed the citizens. ‘It clashes with our bridge, as does the pinkness of your carrots. Oh what shall we do? We cannot agree among ourselves.’ ‘Look again,’ advised the donkey. And so they did; they looked and argued and squabbled and argued and |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Fantasisation

the Donkey argues or does not

The narrative escalator














| <>. |<>. p<>{color:#000;}. after a while most of them got used to the blueness of the donkey and didn’t notice it anymore. But a few remained who maintained strongly that blueness was inherent, and a few protested that it was essentially intentional. And there still a few others who managed to see — though only sometimes — that the Blue Donkey was only herself and therefore beautiful. These last occasionally brought her a bunch of blue flowers which she put in a vase.

(The Blue Donkey Fables, London: The Women’s Press, 1988, 1-2)


|<>. p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey opts out while point out that what is “universal” is merely a game.

Elasticisation of time.

The ending of the narrative leaves room for the improvisation of a future narrator and hence the imagination of the reader in ways essential to Prankir’s definition of Indian fantasy.



Pattern B: The narratology of prejudice and Pattern C: the trickster


table<>. <>. |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. The Sinner


One afternoon as the Blue Donkey was reciting some verse before an audience, an ordinary grey donkey marched up to her, fell at her feed and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Sister, I have sinned! I seek absolution.’ The Blue Donkey was most embarrassed. She bent down and whispered hurriedly, ‘Oh do get up. As for sinning, please, that’s quite all right’. ‘But you don’t understand,’ the grey donkey moaned: ‘You are my sister and it is against you I have sinned.’ Now the Blue Donkey was perfectly sure that the donkey at her feet was not her sister. ‘Please,’ she said politely, ‘there must be some mistake. I am not your sister. Indeed, I don’t think we’ve met. So you see, there’s no need to moan.

|<>. p<>{color:#000;}. Serialisation


the Donkey is confronted by unexpected support


Blue Donkey is patronised by the hegemony.


Note here that the sense of place is indicated as wherever the blue donkey is.




Blue Donkey tricks the hegemony into agreeing with her in order to gain the “sexiness” that association with the outsider can gift. | <>. |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. You can’t have sinned.’ ‘Oh yes I have.’ The donkey at her feet refused to budge. ‘I have been snotty and snobbish and often thought to myself that I despise blue donkeys and would never go near one or have one for a friend.’ ‘Well there you are.’ The Blue Donkey was losing patience. ‘That’s an excellent |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey discovers this support to be based on “orientalism” | <>. |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. reason for removing yourself.’ ‘But you must listen. I’ve changed completely,’ the grey donkey wailed. ‘I believe in sisterhood. I’m going to be your friend.’ The Blue Donkey hesitated; there were limits, she decided, even to good manners. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘No. That won’t do at all.’ ‘What? After everything I said? Who exactly do you think you are?’ The grey donkey was beside herself. ‘Well,’ the Blue Donkey soothed, ‘you asked for absolution but you haven’t done penance. ‘What must I do?’ Fall at the feet of the other donkeys here and explain to them — as you did to me — that you excuse their greyness.’ ‘But — I don’t understand.’ The Blue Donkey pushed her away. ‘Why let that stop you? They, I am sure, will make you understand.’ (36) |<>.
p<>{color:#000;}. the Donkey finds a solution which forces the supporter and ourselves to consider the nature of the support we offer.



Blue Donkey shows us how to make the hegemony look ridiculous when it substitutes cultural appropriation for genuine respect. (this one actually works a bit better with the story about the tigers.)


Cyclicalisation: the repetition of story now becomes a cycling of behaviour — what comes around, goes around.



^1 ^The longer I look at the Blue Donkey tales, the more racist the Shrek franchise looks. Donkey’s desire to be a horse, his desire to be loved, is actually a very bad case of self-loathing. I missed it because it is so damn funny. But imagine Blue Donkey saying “horses are more heroic”?

This paper was written for the 12th May 2012 Roehampton conference, “The Inner Life of the Child”. The conference decided not to produce proceedings and the Monday after the conference I began as Head of Department at Anglia Ruskin University, in Cambridge. I was working on The Cambridge Introduction to Children’s Fantasy Literature with my colleague Mike Levy (Wisconsin-Stout). I did mean to turn it into a journal article, but it really isn’t the stuff journal articles are made of, it’s far too personal and uses anecdata in place of actual evidence. There are a couple of places where if I was reading this, I’d be shouting “evidence?” so I have left in my own queries to myself.



What is this [+“child” you speak of? +]




The initial inspiration for this paper came from a perfectly innocent query from our colleague, the rightly esteemed Nick Tucker. Moments after I was asked to speak on the theme of “Children’s Literature and the Inner World” he posted the following to the mailing list Child_Lit.


My rough thesis is that when adults really enjoy a story they go on thinking about it afterwards, often making up extra bits en route. Thus all those letters to authors asking them about what happened after a story officially came to an end. By the same token, adults hate unfinished stories of the shaggy dog type that have been used to tease the older reader probably ever since speech began. My conclusion will be that adults see life very much in terms of a series of stories, which means that an unfinished story is particularly hard for them to accept.


What is written here is clearly ridiculous. No one thinks of adult readers this way. No one says adults “hate unfinished stories” or that “adults see life very much in terms of a series of stories” (of course this is not quite true, as there are plenty of critics around quite willing to tell us what adults qua adults ought to get out of literature. Instead, people who work in reception theory are perfectly comfortable breaking “adult readers” into coherent if overlapping groups: there are two types of this, the type of reader: the categorisation of types of people which purport to be types of reader: the gay reader, the female reader, the African-American reader, and on the other hand categories which focus on what is read: the reader of science fiction/of thrillers/of literary fiction/of chic lit/of long dark melancholia of the soul.

The first set is as irritating and eliding as I will be arguing the category of “the child” is, and most of us acknowledge this. The second, is turned outwards towards the books, and what people choose to read, but is a way of understanding readers that all too often I see denied to those below the age of about twelve who are conflated as “the child reader” without distinction of interests or taste.

Which is why of course Nick did not write what I have posted on my first slide. What he posted, and what will be instantly recognisable to all of you, is the following:


My rough thesis is that when children really enjoy a story they go on thinking about it afterwards, often making up extra bits en route. Thus all those letters to authors asking them about what happened after a story officially came to an end. By the same token, children hate unfinished stories of the shaggy dog type that have been used to tease the younger reader probably ever since speech began. My conclusion will be that children see life very much in terms of a series of stories, which means that an unfinished story is particularly hard for them to accept.


I am being a little unfair to Nick in holding him up like this, because what Nick wrote is endemic to the study of children and to the study of children’s literature. The effect — and I can only do this in comparative terms I’m afraid, is to remind me rather forcefully of the small collection of books my mother has at home with titles such as Basset Hound, The Basset Hound Owner’s Survival Guide and How to Train and Understand Your Basset Hound Puppy. With dogs, who tend to have strong breed personalities, it makes sense. With human children? Not so much.

As a community of critics, from a range of disciplines, we seem to find it very hard to get away from the idea of children and “the child” as a category. Do not get me wrong here: I am sure that as individuals we each respect the individuality of the children we meet and interact with — many librarians I know work very hard to do this — but our professions as librarians, critics, editors, authors, child development and play specialists, exist within a paradigm from which it is extremely hard to break away in which we lose sight of the idea that children might already have interests, and instead seem to focus on other reified categories such as age appropriateness or worse, what I have seen described as bibliotherapy.

At the casual level I see this in the queries that make their way to the child_lit mailing lists, asking for a book “for a child who has suffered a bereavement” or “a book that will interest a boy who is always in trouble for fighting and needs to be persuaded to sit still” (these are two real examples by the way). Similarly, I see many informal queries that begin X is ten years old. My creative writing students, faced with a class of ten year olds, rapidly enter shock as they see the range of books “appropriate” in terms of the children’s choices, and how little this might even relate to reading ability. People rush to recommend (we are a community that values knowledge and the knowledgeable) but we are making our recommendations on almost no knowledge of the individual involved: we are recommending books to a category of people, rather than a type of reader.

At the more formal level, the homogenisation and categorisation of “the child” is fundamental both to the concept of the cultural construction of childhood and to the neurological and psychological studies of childhood which support child development theory, and which have been accepted in the field. Shirley R. Steinberg and Joel L. Kincheloe, are rare subversives in this area, arguing:


“Considering biological stages of child development fixed and unchangeable, teachers, psychologists, parents and welfare workers, along with the community at large, view and judge children along a taxonomy of development that is fictional. Those children who don’t “measure up” are relegated to the land of low and self-fulfilling expectations. (Steinberg and Kincheloe, p. 3)


But the problem here is that there really is a great deal of factual truth in, for example, the taxonomy of child development: it is hedged around with caveats as we learn that our perceptions are trained by our environments, and our tendency to introversion or extroversion may be in our genes, and that what we learn first in language may depend on the language (apparently Korean language acquisition among babies is verb led, not noun led). In developmental terms, there really is something we can call “the child”.

More seriously and where I want to begin here today, is that the homogenization of “the child” in the work I read is in part a direct consequence of the insistence on the cultural construction of “childhood”. Time pressures have been such in the past months that I have not been able to conduct the survey I intended, so before I proceed I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to Alison Waller’sConstructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism (2009) which offers a really excellent survey on what she calls “Theories of the Child” (2-8), and to the special issue in Children’s Literature Quarterly which revisited Jacqueline Rose’s work in 2010, and also to Hallie O’Donovan who helped me work through this paper.

I begin, of course, with Jacqueline Rose who might be positioned at the extreme constructivist position. From Waller:


Her main position is that the ‘real child’ can never exist within a literature that is produced by adults, other than as a figure of fantasy or desire: “There is no child behind the category ‘children’s fiction’, other than the one which the category itself sets in place, the one which it needs to believe is there for its own purposes. (Rose p. 10, cited in Waller, p. 4)


I don’t think it is a secret that I am skeptic where Rose is concerned, but I am not always sure if it is understood why I am a skeptic. I don’t actually have a problem with Rose’s statement: it is very obvious to anyone with sense that ideas of childhood have changed and that literature reflects those changes, and that people are shaped by the socio cultural pressures surrounding them in their childhoods. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be a feminist.

What baffles me, as it baffles Peter Hunt (editorial, CLQ, 2010./35/3/p. 224) is why she seems so convinced that the position of the child reader, or the portrayal of the child protagonist, is uniquely “a figure of fantasy or desire”. I rather like beginning at the general and working towards the particular, so I will begin with the most obvious idea I can: the majority of readers are not writers.

I am not sure why this completely obvious point often escapes, but perhaps it is because a critic and commentator is, by their very action, a writer so that the gap between the author of fiction and the author of criticism is quite narrow. In the rest of the world, it is actually quite wide. What this means is that when a writer puts pen to paper and writes of people who don’t write that author is constructing as much a “figure of fantasy or desire” as s/he is when an adult writes of a child. This extends outwards because the despite the advice to write what you know, whole areas of fiction are written by people who have never experienced what they write: romance writers, thriller writers, the writers of literary stories set in Canada written from the fastness of the British Library. How are they not constructing figures of fantasy or desire?

But this is a broad brush: we can politicize it, we can look at other groups who have at various times little voice: most female figures in pre-twentieth century literature were written by men; most gay characters are probably still written by straight writers (there may have been a brief period when this was not so, but mainstreaming will have reversed this edit 2016, and I am currently reading m/m romance mostly written by heterosexual or bi women); most non-white characters are probably written by white writers, again solely as a result of the balance of numbers involved and the mainstreaming of both people of colour and issues of racism. One major issue here is the degree to which insiders are often lauded for their ability to write outsiders: privilege is rewarded. This is proving a very sizeable can of worms in the sf community as Black and Asian writers have begun to challenge what they deem appropriation, and female fans and critics are getting very vocal every time a male writer “discovers” feminism.

I hope I can hear you thinking, ah, but there are countervailing voices, adults, however oppressed, can and do argue back. We are here to talk about the inner life of “the child” or, as I prefer to say “children” and in their inner lives, children do fight back. To believe anything else is to revert us to a prelapsarian belief that children are blank slates.

Children might not be able to write back — although some do, and when they do, I’d point to the degree that they tend to write what they see adults writing; see the juvenilia of Austen or Paolini — but they do express their opinions in the choices they make, for where Rose got it very wrong, was in her argument that “commercially” children are not a market (she sees only the child “recipient of the Christmas gift, and the child reader,” (108) who she positions as a relatively passive recipient of state attention. Gretchen Galbraith’s Reading Lives: Constructing Childhood, Books and Schools in Britain, 1870-1920 (1997) decisively explains why this is nonsense, and my own research for The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teens Science Fiction (2009) confirms this. Adults do not control everything children read. Children make choices every day, they ignore the book read in class, they want the book they heard their friend talk about, they choose x toy over y toy, they demand the latest sugary food and they insist that they aren’t going to play with that nice gender neutral toy you bought from the Swedish catalogue but instead want the latest “gender appropriate” piece of plastic peddled by Toys R US.

The erasure of children as a market comes I think from two areas: the first is simply mistaking the ownership and exchange of money as the only kind of market place there is (Marx made this mistake with the result that his world is as devoid of women as any 1950s space opera). Children may have no money of their own (though much pocket money in the west comes without strings) but they have control over the way much money is spent, and they have enormous word of mouth power, because they actually get to talk to each other which many of us working adults don’t, and they scrounge and barter endlessly, which is an unrecognised aspect of the market (although I remember it being formalised in the BBC programme Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, and I wonder if anyone has ever used the archive of “swaps” to study the lived culture of children).

My second bone of contention is back to the uniqueness issue. When people argue that adults are the gate keepers for children, they forget that the elites are gatekeepers for much that the working classes (in its Marxist sense) consume; that there are gatekeepers throughout the market place who decide what we will select our choices from (I have two major food allergies which have made me very alert to the role gatekeepers play on the menus from which I select, particularly as we have had no kitchen for a month and my menu consists of a narrow range of ready meals); that we are all subject to gatekeepers with whom we have little in common — this is one of the roots of protest against what has come to be known as the Nanny State. Alison Waller, in her article “Psychic Barriers and Contact Zones” in the special Jacqueline Rose issue of the Children’s Literature Quarterly makes the same point: “It is debatable, for instance, whether any single adult reader has any more control over the production, distribution and interpretation of their reading matter than does any child” (279).


We can challenge even the notion of the impenetrability of ‘the child’s’ mind which emerges as a consequence of Rose’s arguments (although I do not think she herself was heading in this direction) as something unique, with a consideration of our response to older texts. As Lissa Paul noted:


“As I worked on Alcott and Atlanta and other periodicals of the period, I was aware that my view of them would have been incomprehensible to nineteenth-century eyes” (46)


The argument for mentalité is old and established and I will return to it later.


Yet in all these similarities I have missed out something crucial, a really big difference between my relationship to the gay man I have written about, or my relationship to a historical period not my own, and my relationship to the 9 year old girl I have written about. I have never been a gay man, I have never lived in the thirteenth century. C. S. Lewis stated it baldly when someone challenged his own lack of children, “ah, but I WAS a child”.

The entire argument about ‘the child’, whether a naturalised child rooted in development and cognition studies, or the concept of the cultural construction of childhood (both of which I think has validity), is in denial: frequently it seems to be conducted in a faux neutral space. We act and write as if we were never children, but if the personal is the political, and the child is the father of the man, then we are actually in denial of our own sense of ourselves as individual children.

One reason for this is that we do not all have the same level of memory of childhood. For some people, childhood seems very clear. I asked my partner, who had the kind of bland, middle class childhood that supposedly only existed in books, and he tells me that his childhood is very clear to him. For others, it’s all a blur. My own memory of childhood — a probably standard mix of blandness and turmoil — is a punctuated one, with moments when I can not only remember incidents but also how I felt — there is one memory that rings intensely of betrayal — while that of adolescence (thanks in part to illness) is very vague indeed. While I know that getting personal on a critic’s motivations is Not Done, I do find myself wondering, when I read Rose, whether she is someone with rather vague memories of childhood. What really matters however is that the mistake is to assume that there are rules to what we can and can’t remember (I wonder if the teaching of Sign Language to babies will move the age of memory back a year?) and to assume that because our experiences are individual, and partial, they are not critically valid.

I honestly believe that we need to start finding our own inner child and putting it back into our criticism.

To give you an example of what I mean, here is an example of an overarching conclusion I stumbled over, by Fran Claggett in a foreword to Lissa Paul’s Reading Other Ways. I should emphasise that at least Claggett has the grace not to say “children don’t” but rather that she has not met such:


“I have yet to meet anyone who remembers learning to read — learning to decode, learning that lines and shapes on paper can be transfigured into words that one can say or imagine.” (p. 3)


It took ten minutes and my livejournal to find several people who do remember clearly. In each case it seems to be because our desperate desire to read imprinted the process (although one friend had blocked it from her memory because it had been accompanied by so much physical abuse she had no desire to remember it). These memories often have context that, if they do not supply veracity, do suggest that it is not necessarily a chosen and constructed memory: I, for example, clearly remember what Claggett describes for reading in English. I have no memory at all of learning to read Hebrew although it took place about the same time and I was just as fluent at the decoding — if not the translating — within a year. I don’t remember learning my numbers or how to count. I do remember the break through on multiplication. I have friends for whom the learning of numbers was a magical moment. Already we are out of the inner life of ‘the child’ and into the inner life of ‘children’, a set of individuals with complex experiences from which we might draw conclusions but which is suddenly individuated and variegated.

The difficulty here is that we now run the risk of being accused of relying on “anecdotal” evidence, which does not reflect the experiences of the “average” child. Apart from stating the obvious, “there is no such thing as the average child”, which we all know, I think here that many of us are handicapped by our ignorance of the statistical tools at our disposal. Unless one is trained in the US system or its counterparts, there is a pretty strong likelihood that by the time you started your PhD you hadn’t considered maths for at least eight years. For no particular reason I went back to retake O level maths a few years back. I’d done rather well the first time, and this was to get me back up to speed so that I could take A level maths, for fun. One of the smaller lessons was on averages, and it reminded me of all the very different ways you could use statistics (I had great fun using statistical analysis on writing styles).

For most people, the only average is the “mean average”, the one you get when you divide the data by the data points. Used properly it’s not a bad form of average, as in when you want the average blood pressure to come down; but used poorly, such as to decide what the “average” man in the street wants, it can be both misleading and oppressive because it blands out the results, producing convergence rather than actually giving people what they want. Similar the problem with the concept of “the child” and even “children”, creating a norm that might not actually tell us anything very much.

An approach which avoids this is to use, the “range” something which sits alongside the median (the answer in the middle), and the mode (the most popular answer) and provides a snapshot of the span of response, from minority report to minority report. Holly Blackford in her book, Out of this World: Why Literature Matters to Girls (2004), does just this.

Blackford began her research with a crucial piece of information: that most people will, if prompted, give the answers they think are preferred. Thus, although she had a clear research direction (essentially about the way in which girls used literature to explore being girls) this was not revealed to the people interviewed: she pursued an “open” interview style, but did direct to topics.

The second crucial element was that Blackford accepted that her initial premise might be wrong. She even titles a section: “What was wrong with my research questions?”, a title I would challenge because we all have to begin somewhere. One of the things I tell my students is that if you aren’t prepared to accept that your own theory might be wrong, you aren’t engaged in research you are engaged in politics. I can think of a number of uncomfortable examples in which I have read books where the evidence was clearly at variance with the argument being made or where the argument made required the author to ignore some of her own findings.

One of the reasons Blackford discovered she was wrong in her initial surmises was that she did not try to use questionnaires or to generalise. Instead she used a large number of interviews and when writing them up, used a case study approach which prizes individual variation. Blackford, rather than using a mean average used the qualitative equivalent of the range, the span of responses along with an exploration of the mode (the most commonly given response). The result was that she was able to preserve a sense of the girls she interviewed as people rather than a type.

These are not new lessons. One of the books I returned to this week was Leila Berg’s 1972 classic Look at Kids. Berg does precisely this. She looks at children. She watches them, she makes assumptions, discovers they are wrong, she re-evaluates. Crucially she people watches children as she people watches adults, as individuals about whose motivations she speculates. There is no “the child”. And while there is a “childhood” of learning and activity, it is precisely what cultural expectation of childhood is, and how it affects children that is Berg’s subject.

As must now be clear, one of the reasons I have come to so dislike this default to “the child” is the way it is used to erase differences between children. Yes, there is the usual nod to race, to class, to gender, but this is back to that mean average, and to categorising as a type, rather than as a reader. This is also frequently very crude: I am fed up of pointing out that while I am clearly “white” I did not partake of a Gentile English upbringing of any social class. But still I regularly read comments and criticism that treat children as a monolithic group with all the same behaviours, attitudes, skills and interests. Classically the comment is “children like x”. I suppose my root objection to this is the number of times I simply fail to recognise myself, or the children I know, in the “children like x” scenarios that are presented. A recent example, which leads me into my next argument, was the objection of some people that the teens in Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother were not like “real” teens because teens of the opposite sex who were attracted to each other, would, of course, sleep together, a response which completely ignored all the evidence that high performing academic teenagers often choose to delay sexual activity and that if 47% of American teens are having some kind of sexual contact (the latest figures I could find and which leaves open the wide socio-religious interpretation of what sexual contact is) that still leaves 53% not.

My work in the science fiction community, which I suspect is the reason I am standing here, has confirmed this sense that this “child” we keep referring to, with its inner life that we can categorise as a “child’s inner life” as if we were describing the inside of an orange (and yes, you are meant to bridle at that) does not match mine or those of my friends, or, if you are honest with yourselves, your own. We were not, mostly, reluctant readers (though I know exceptions for that). Me and most of my friends loved learning maths. I was handed a history text book at eight years old, fell in love and at twelve demanded a copy of The Making of the English Working Class thus defying the notion that girls don’t read non-fiction and won’t read large books (although that last one is in abeyance today). Most of us were quite obedient and lots of us utterly failed to go through adolescent rebellion, unless, as Jo Walton describes in her brilliant novel of the outsider teen, Among Others, you count an utter disinterest in the opposite sex or the latest issue of Smash Hits and a realisation that older people really were worth listening to, as adolescent rebellion.

So it is not that I think the phrase ‘the child’ is incorrect in some way, it is that I think it is erasing, essentially orientalist and also rather limiting in its effect on our understanding. Why are we so determined to construct ‘the inner life of the child’ when we know immediately that ‘the inner life of the adult’ is a conceptual absurdity? What I want to contend, is that we can only construct the inner life of a child, one child at a time, and then, I think, we will find that just as women when considered as individuals turned out to be people too, some of whom like pink and others who like stripping motorbikes and some of them are the same women, we may discover the same about children. The issue is how to do this, and here is where I am going to change direction completely, and begin to talk about my experiences both in sf and fantasy criticism, as a teacher of history, and a teacher of creative writing. What I want to reintroduce from the abstract child and childhood is an understanding of an inner life of individuals.


The debate on children and childhood and the family is longstanding. There are three big issues for historians.

The first issue, whether childhood was special and children precious is less relevant to our discussion about the inner life of the child, except that it focused attention on how we can judge the inner life of anyone. Does the parent who believes a child is born wicked and must be trained into Grace think of a child as something other than an adult or not? Does the parent who writes that their child has been admitted into heaven feel grief? Does the government that thinks a child who is underage for the franchise, can be tried for murder and given a full tariff sentence consider that children are different to adults? That last example is both seventeenth century Geneva and several states of the USA by the way: and the answer turns out to be “yes” because it is perfectly possible to hold two apparently contradictory ideas at the same.

The second issue is whether children have fundamentally changed or whether there is something we can see as the essential child. Neuroscientists and cognitive scientists increasingly believe that we are hardwired with a bundle of potentials, some of which are universal, some of which may be specific, and that these are opened or closed up according to our environment which means everything from food to direct upbringing to the social milieu and collection of prejudices which surround us. Proponents of the childhood as cultural construct balk at this and contextualise childhood as different in every period.


“Study the child of today. She is a tight mouthed little materialist, “wise” beyond belief…


Speed is his keynote. Mediums of speed that we saw develop from the idea to actuality are the basis from which she begins to think…

While she may read some of our childhood literary favourites because it is good policy in her relations with her parents, down in her heart it is “old stuff”…

…you will learn that she has a surprisingly keen knowledge of the powers politic, and unerringly places a lot of blame for conditions that do not seem “fair” to her on “politics”…She knows that the blind selfishness of his parents permit such conditions to exist. The older folks are a trust for the suppression of youth, but she aims to bust it when she gets older….

Actually, I am cheating. This is not a description of contemporary children, but one from 1922. Jess H. Wilson, Does Your “Research” Embrace the Boy of Today? (1922). He thinks children change for different eras. I would suggest that he has just provided the evidence that they probably don’t all that much.

The third issue, which relates to the above, is simply the way we use evidence. We need to be much more careful about our deployment of the theory that childhood is a socio-and cultural construct. We can take a lesson from medievalists here who regularly argue that few expend ink on describing what should be if the world around them is already conforming to it (think of all thing things in our legal codes which tell us what we shouldn’t do, such as not speeding) and that “ideas of childhood” may have little to do with actual, real, existing childhood as it is lived, even while that living itself is structured around cultural expectations and economic demands. The example I usually use with my students is from The Beano, and the changing visual depictions of Dennis the Menace: the shift in portrayal of Dennis from teenage thug to cutely mischievous is a clear shift of what it is acceptable today, but it doesn’t mean adults’ attitudes to teenage thugs have changed one iota, nor does it mean that teenage thugs have suddenly disappeared.

A fourth and related lesson is that we can know everything about a child’s social position, colour, gender, situation in the family, class and education and still not know about their inner life, what motivates them, what makes them who they are. I am going to go all personal on you now and tell you a little about my own family: white, Jewish, immigrant, poor. Manchester and Salford based. Keen on education. Doctor, lawyer, dentist were the desired outcomes. Marriage to one of the above the desirable aim for a woman. Yet of my grandparents’ generation there are market traders, lawyers, businesswomen, a communist party organiser, a professor of Chemistry, and an author of children’s books with a sideline in child psychology and child play (Leila Berg was my maternal grandpa’s first cousin). I write about the writer Geoffrey Trease: he was the smart, intellectual one of the family, yet his older, sports mad brother was the one who ended up as a University Professor. If there is one thing being a historian has taught me, it is that for all that social pressures and social opportunities may determine someone’s success (some eras are more supportive of social mobility than others), personality, the “inner life” is still going to count, and much of that, as my subtitle argues, is anecdotal.

There are a number of places we can see this deployed effectively, and again, apologies for the relatively small range of studies here. One of the earliest, is Piaget’s own work which is still cited but which is criticised because it was a study of one child. The criticism is valuable but ignores the issue that by repeating his observations, we have a collective to draw on which allows us see the external life of many children. One of the early examples of someone doing just this, is Leila Berg in her book Look at Kids. It was a while since I’d read this book but her death reminded me we owned a copy so I pulled it out. It is a series of observations, of anecdotes. One is a set of pictures of a baby laughing. (For copyright reasons you will have to find the picture yourself).

I picked this picture because it is not a verbal description, and although a camera is a form of mediation it is less mediated than a description in which there is, as we see frequently in Berg’s book, a great deal of surmise. I also picked it however because it happens to coincide well with another book I’ve been reading recently, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. This book is proving very popular because not only does it describe introverts and the ways they can be at a disadvantage (and a tiring disadvantage) in an extrovert world, but it also looks carefully at the science relating how early you can assess introversion and extroversion, and the answer turns out to be very early indeed. Wave things in front of a baby’s face and some babies, like the one on the right, wave and kick and yell and then end up screaming. Others just lie there and smile at you. The surprise is that it’s the more responsive baby that is more likely to be the introvert: what they are often expressing is easy stimulation, and with easy stimulation comes overload and a tendency to withdraw. The less easily stimulated baby is more likely to grow into a person who seeks out stimulation like a drug, whether that be steep mountains or people. Just from a set of pictures and from longevity tests, and a bunch of anecdotes, we can get a glimpse into the possible an inner mind of a child and of the adult they will become, the two are connected, they are not separate things.2 Berg may be bringing an adult mind to interpret the inner life of a child, but she is also bring the shared understanding of a primate to interpret the inner life of a fellow primate. It’s what we do. That ability to extrapolate the inner life is fundamental to who we are in the first place and is why it can be disconcerting to meet people who either cannot interpret others’ inner life, or do not seem to have very much themselves.

But sometimes we don’t have to extrapolate: we can just ask. In chapter 12 of Berg’s book, she discusses conversations with children over issues that adults assumed were traumatic: the child who insisted watching the news playing the disaster at Aberfan in 1966, the child who kept saying “my auntie died” but who when sympathised with declared that she had lots of aunties, the child whose response to the death of a grandmother was to ask if she could sleep in the big bed. Typically, we (and I include I) respond to this with the “cuteness of children”, but Berg moves us on, from a classic “they don’t really understand” to a position of accepting that they understand what works for them, they are processing events like any other people, and how they do it tells us about their inner lives. I’ve not talked at all about children’s literature so far, but the writer I’ve read recently who most seems to understand this is Hilary McKay for whom each child in her books is very individual and responds as a person with his or her own ways of doing things, which can translate as power.3

McKay’s work was criticised by Diana Wynne Jones (acting as a critic) on the basis that children in chaotic families are stressed by the chaos. At the time I remember thinking “but surely it depends on the child?”, having both come across children who seemed to enjoy the chaos of their homes, and been quite surprised to discover at the age of ten that I was considered to be one of those children from a chaotic home (my mother was divorced at a time when that was still considered odd, and clean socks did not feature highly in her concerns — museums and art galleries did). There were lots of things about my childhood that stressed me but lack of clean socks, un-ironed socks and a belief that a child could sit reading or watching in meetings and rehearsals, were not among them.

Here it’s worth considering the difference between McKay’s work, and Jones’s classic The Time of the Ghost. In Jones’s Time of the Ghost the parents are genuinely removed from their children. They have little interest in them, and as Virginia Nicholson wrote in Among the Bohemians they have adopted a philosophy that justifies their child neglect. Crises are dismissed as not being real. In McKay’s work, Daddy is what we used to call a bounder: he’s off having fun but like every splendid cad he does actually feel a bit guilty and rushes home whenever he is needed. Jones used her own experience as a child to inform her criticism, but universalised from that (and it is notable that her sisters have different versions of the family story). We can see the difference in Jones’s universalisation of the single experience to McKay’s spectrum of experiences which make use of the family story/ensemble structure to do in fictional terms what Blackford did as research, to create a range of responses.

Both Jones and McKay work from a position that assumes people are rather clever, so their children are rather clever — they both accept the idea that there is continuity between children and the adults they become. But the girls of Time of the Ghost have already realised that there is very little they can do to change the situation : their attempts to control their own lives, from food to fate, are continually undercut by the interventions of adults, and thus they act as if they are abandoned, because they are abandoned.

The difference in the two families begins with the independence of the children: when Indigo trains himself out of fear of heights, when Saffy finds her Angel and when Rose learns to light a fire, the independence is applauded even as its affect on the future is complex. Perhaps even more important, is that the McKay children of Saffy’s Angels and its sequels (and prequel) know that Daddy can be manipulated because in his own way he loves them. It is a distinct difference. Leila Berg wrote:


“Children, because they are small and weak, because they have had little experience, and because it suits us to condition them quickly before they have had more experience, become secretly convinced we are omnipotent.” (71)


This is what Jones portrays, even the ending of The Time of the Ghost has a certain parentes ex machinaas Granny sweeps down to “rescue” the children. Jones’s fictions are almost always about the ways adults really do decide the fate of children, even when those children are very powerful (think of Chrestomanci and Cat). I am not sure that any but the smallest children believe parents are omnipotent. Perhaps parents of a particular generation tried to project this, but that projection relied on a great deal of separation of parent and child which in itself undercut feelings that they were omnipotent because there were always things parents could not intervene in.

There is a degree I think to which Jones is reflecting less her experience of childhood than her experience of gendered childhood and of womanhood in the 1950s when most women were treated as children and no matter how strong or clever there was always the need for some man’s signature: in this scenario, in very important ways girl children did not and were not expected to grow up, except to the degree that they accepted the omnipotence of the adult man.

An alternative approach comes from Neil Gaiman, wrote for the New York Times last week:


Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them. Information is currency, and information that will allow you to decode the language, motivations and behaviour of the occupying forces, on whom you are uniquely dependent for food, for warmth, for happiness, is the most valuable information of all. (http://tinyurl.com/jdesvl9


Which is perhaps closer to the truth, and does give children more agency, but is still, as Hallie O’Donovan pointed out to me, a very flattening picture of children.


Crucially, I don’t think Gaiman’s observation is about shifting attitudes to childhood, I think it’s about changing ideas of being an adult: what Gaiman really has here is a case of post-imperialism. I think Berg didn’t actually notice some of the things she was observing which relates to her understanding of her own childhood. Although we have Berg’s own tale of growing up in a family in which her voice was silenced, missing is the tale of the larger family she saw, in which children’s voices were valuable because of a culture of questioning within the culture’s educational tradition. In more than one anecdote Berg gives, we can see children manipulating the adults who they know to be erratic but erratic in particular ways. It isn’t that Berg gets this wrong it’s just that it isn’t what she is interested in. Jones, in her criticism of McKay, assumed all children would react the same way, irrespective of personal character (so that the protagonists of Time of the Ghost share a sense of damage even if it is manifested properly, whereas most of us know people whose distress is in part caused precisely because not all siblings experience the same upbringing the same way).

McKay is interested in this. The Casson family sequence demonstrates the quite distinct ways in which each child reacts: Saffy becomes angry, academic and spiky in response to a very personal betrayal by her father. I also recognise in her the tendency — which Virginia Nicholson also notes — of the children of distinctly flaky parents to reach for order in their lives through institutional structures. Indigo finds new mentors in an American boy Tom and the proprietor of the local music shop. Caddy turns into a version of her mother, although the Zoo is her version of the shed at the bottom of the garden. Rose, the one who sees through Daddy, is in the end the one most like Daddy: thoroughly selfish, single minded and charming. McKay does indicate the damage of a chaotic home, she just doesn’t see one size fitting all and nor does she necessarily realise it as “damage”.

All characters, all people as they are written, are constructs. None of this is real. Rose is quite right that we construct “the child” we desire, but this only becomes a problem when we couple it with notions of identification in the reading process. As long as we assume that a reader reads to admire/emulate/mock/be repulsed by/be warned by, it matters not what we think the reader is. Helpfully, it turns out that argument that children/adolescents need reading matter they can identify with is limited. The premise Holly Blackford began with was that girls needed female characters through whom to work out their femaleness.


“The girls embraced a different phenomenology of reading and theory of literature than I did.” (7) “My question, who would you want to be in that story?” was continually critiqued by the girls, who replaced my assumptions with their own philosophies. They do not experience ‘the relational self’ (Gilligan) of life when engaging with stories in books, films, and plays. (7)


If the relational self is not the focus of all children’s reading, then do we really need to work out what that self is, or whether it is a real thing or a constructed image in order to write for it?



Works Cited

Berg, Leila Look at Kids, London: Penguin, 1972

Streatfield, Noel Tennis Shoes. London: Penguin, 1938

Waller, Alison, Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism, London: Routledge, 2008.

Hunt, Peter, editorial, Children’s Literature Quarterly , 35/3/p. 224. 2010.

Galbraith, Gretchen, Reading Lives: Constructing Childhood, Books and Schools in Britain, 1870-1920, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 1997.

Mendlesohn, Farah The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teens Science Fiction, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009.

Blackford, Holly, Out of this World: Why Literature Matters to Girls, Teachers College Press, 2004.

Wilson, Jess H. Does Your “Research” Embrace the Boy of Today? In Printer’s Ink, March 16., 1922.

McKay, Hilary, Saffy’s Angel 2003.

Jones, Diana Wynne Time of the Ghost, London: Harpher Trophy, 1981


Unravelling the Skein of Genocide was always intended to be a journal article but the editorial process took me round and round in circles. One of the difficulties is that the longer you work with an editor and the more it becomes the thing s/he wants, the harder it is to begin again with the process and send it to another editor. I’ve been at both ends of this, and still feel guilty about one article I should have just rejected, but it was oh so near what I wanted that I ended up wasting both the writer’s and my own time. This one did get sent to another editor but it became obvious I’d have to unravel back to a previous version and begin again for them. I decided against it.



The Unravelling Skein of Genocide: Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island

(US: The Lost Conspiracy)



Not by wrath does one kill, but by laughter.

Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-5).



As Gullstruck Island opens, Raglan Skein, one of the Lost, sends his senses out into the world to check for messages at one of the tidings huts which dot the island of Gullstruck. At these huts villagers place notices of news which the Lost read, and then circulate. To return, he reels his senses back along a metaphoric line which the Lost have been taught to construct since childhood, in order to ensure they can always find their way back to their bodies. It is the first of many metaphors of thread and threads which Hardinge creates and which together can be understood as an argument about and metaphor for the tangled thread of language which accompanies us down the road to genocide in both the real world and the world of the novel.

Gullstruck Island is Hardinge’s third novel. Her first two are very different and each distinctive but they are unified by this sense of a story ravelling or unraveling. In the picaresque Fly by Night a girl and her goose wander through a post-civil war society, picking up the threads of conspiracy, and tangling them until the weave breaks. In Verdigris Deep (2007), a suburban fantasy, three children steal bus fare from a wishing well, and find themselves required to make the wishes come true. Each wish is a metaphorical thread tying a person to their own past, becoming discoloured by age. In each case there is the sense of an unraveling, in which the denouement is approached not with the slowed down dread of tragedy but with the escalating descent into farce of the screwball comedy. (Gehring, 2002: 3). In Gullstruck Island this escalation is steeper, intensified through the emphasis on the ridiculous nature of the situation. Hardinge uses ridicule and the ridiculous to shape the reader’s understanding of the process by which genocide comes to seem logical and brings to the table the rhetorical structures of the screwball comedy to understand the role of language in the construction of a genocidal society.

The direction of the narrative in Gullstruck Island is a relentless downward spiral in an unraveling society. Early in the text Harding gives us a metaphor in the island’s gulls. Deprived of the meat of the now extinct farsight fish, the gulls, once able to see the cliffs ahead of them in time as well as space, ‘still seemed to think that they were able to …[cast their sight ahead] so whenever a mist settled they had a tendency to fly headfirst into cliffs.’ 39) So too the people of Gullstruck, unable to see the consequences of their decisions, are flying into the cliff of disaster: the people of the island cannot see the causal chain in their behaviour as each single, isolated step legitimises the next. This narrative is the warp thread of the tale, but the weft is that thread of the ridiculous, the reaction we have when we stop and consider the (il)logic of action or speech. It is a continual intensification of the ridiculous and the absurd which runs through Gullstruck Island. Structure and form become metaphor for meaning. Standing as for all of this in the text is the figure of Jimboly, crowd witch. Jimboly is both weaver and woven. Jimboly weaves trust, sews sedition and tangles common sense with the power of her tongue. But Jimboly’s faith in her tongue is tied to her own images of the material nature of her soul and as her words will, eventually, be untangled by Hathin, the protagonist, and by her companion Tomki the Lace word spinner, so she can be unwoven: Jimboly’s belief in the material nature of her words and her soul are her undoing. Seeing a flickerbird pecking at her shadow she knows: ‘He looked pleased with himself, so I knew he already had a thread of my soul in his little gullet. I caught him in a wicker trap, but then what was I to do with him? …Well, I couldn’t let him fly off and unravel me…’ (86) For Hathin the belief is ridiculous but it is also real, and when she steals Jimboly’s flickerbird it is not in mockery but knowing that she can unravel Jimboly’s soul, and that this unravelling of soul and later of words is key to the unraveling of the thread of genocide, and to the reweaving of the thread of belief systems that forms the islands’ polity.



i. Gullstruck Island.


Gullstruck Island is a small island without immediate or obvious neighbours. There is trade by sea and there are pirates, but both are inhibited by the rocky shore, so that Gullstruck needs to maintain enough domestic production to support its inhabitants, many of whom are descended from stranded pirates. Gullstruck is a multi-ethnic community, made up of several ‘tribes’ of indigenous peoples (mixed with pirates), and at least one band of recent immigrants, the Cavalcaste., Unlike the many washed up sailors who have contributed to the genetic mix of the islands, the Cavalcaste were a cohesive invasion who imposed their own rule on the island.

Of the established communities of the island, the Lace were once the most important: ever smiling, always welcoming, the Lace were the island’s ambassadors and priests, making peace between the tribes, keeping the four volcanoes on the island calm, and maintaining peace between the tribes and the volcanoes. When the Cavalcaste came, they accepted the help of the Lace, but they ignored their warnings and built their first town in the land between two volcanoes. The Lace, anxious to appease the volcanoes, began kidnapping Cavalcaste for sacrifice. When this was discovered, the Cavalcaste and the indigenous tribes rose up, and wiped out most of the Lace. What Lace remained were marginalised, pushed to the edges of society and of the island.

The size of Gullstruck Island is unclear, but its geology and geography ensure that communication across the island is difficult. The capital, Port Suddenwind, is in the far north-east corner and orders and advice are slow to travel. In order to keep the island unified, the islanders make use of the services of their Lost, children born regularly in every generation. A young Lost child can seem unfocussed and mentally undeveloped, but a system of education has evolved in which the Lost children’s minds are attracted to a beacon in the mountains where teachers teach to empty rooms, hoping that the Lost are present. It has become a very effective system of education.

The Lost can send their senses out into the world. ‘… a gifted Lost might be feeling the grass under their knees, tasting the peach in your hand, overhearing a conversation in the next village and smelling cooking in the next town, all while watching barracudas dapple and brisk around a shipwreck ten miles out to sea.’ (1). There have been no Lost among the Lace for two hundred years. The last genocide wiped them out. Until now. The Lady Arilou, almost fourteen, has brought fame and small fortune to the Lace village of Hollow Beasts for some time, almost certainly saving them from starvation as harvests dwindle as land runs short, and the fish disappear from over fishing. Which is why, when the news comes that Raglan Skein (one of the Lost Council) and his assistant Minster Prox, are coming to test her, there is panic. For although Lady Arilou shows many of the signs of being Lost, she is, as far as they can tell, “oozy brained”. She may not be Lost at all or may, as more than one person suggests, be oozy brained and still be Lost.

On the day of the exam, Raglan Skein dies unexpectedly. While sitting, his soul simply vacates his body. The villagers, panicked, cut the rope that holds the boat in which Minster Prox is waiting off shore, and report both dead. What they do not know is that across the island all the Lost except Lady Arilou have also died. When Minster Prox survives, badly burned from the sun and feverish from lack of water, the attempt of the Lace to cover up the two deaths is discovered and the Lace find themselves held responsible for the ‘massacre of the Lost’. The other local peoples turn on the village of Hollow Beasts, burning them out, driving them into the sea. The undersea tunnels through which they flee turn out to be blocked (by a traitor) and they all drown. Only two people escape, Lady Arilou and her younger sister Hathin, a quiet, dusty looking child, who slips in and out of the mind, easy to forget.

Hathin both looks of dust, and is dust. Lace names are ‘not simply based on natural sounds, they were supposed to imitate them, even in ordinary speech. Strangers were often baffled at hearing a stream of Lace interrupted by impressions of birdcalls, fire-like crackles and rushing sounds of wind and water.’ (379) Where Lady Arilou’s name is meant to invoke the call of the owl, Hathin is the sound dust makes. Where Lady Arilou is beautiful with high cheek bones and grey eyes, Hathin is round-faced, snub-nosed, with nondescript brown eyes. Lady Arilou’s striking face evokes the different groups on the island. Hathin’s is a face that blends into the shades of the island’s land and people. The two teens represent different modes of hybridity, one which produces something exotic, and another which produces the ordinary, the average. But more important, Lady Arilou has been groomed to be noticed, Hathin, although no one says it outright, has been groomed to fade so easily into the background that no outsider will notice her.

The people of Hollow Beasts secretly know that Lady Arilou is ‘oozy brained’ (although they are not sure that she is not Lost). They are engaged in a conspiracy at the very heart of which sits Hathin, groomed from small childhood by her village to ‘look after’ her older sister. It is Hathin who has been the voice of Lady Arilou, and who has sat by her side, feeding her honey, keeping her happy and ‘translating’ the bird like sounds which trill from Arilou’s mouth. ‘The visitors who had marvelled at Lady Arilou’s wisdom and breeding over the years had never guessed for a moment that her trembling little ‘translator’ was pulling her high-sounding sentences out of the air.’ (19) So when the two girls escape, the story spreads that Lady Arilou has led Hathin into the mountains. The Ash Walker (bounty hunter) assumes it is Lady Arilou who is cheating him. Camber (the civil servant and agent provocateur) assumes that it is Lady Arilou who is tangling the threads of genocidal narrative he wishes to weave.

It is Hathin who leads the Lady Arilou to the mountains, who negotiates with the volcanoes and the peoples of the Lace, and Hathin who takes the butterfly wing tattoo of the Reckoning (a group of Lace guerrillas) which commits her to revenge or death; it is Hathin also who finds ways to negotiate her way through the multifarious superstitions and rituals of the inhabitants of the island so that by the end, she has brought many assumptions crashing down. Hathin tangles the thread of the narrative Camber wishes to construct for the island, but in doing so creates a new weave of the island’s story. Unlike Mosca Mye in the earlier Fly By Night, Hathin does not leave chaos in her wake. Hathin is running ahead of the chaos that chases her, a chaos which exists below the surface of order which has been imposed by Cavalcaste rule. This chaos, we can think of as ridiculous, a ridiculous comprised of the historic accretion of ideas, of ideology and hidden or not so hidden prejudice. It is a notion of the ridiculous which is many facetted, which describes things as they exist, which turns the notion of the ridiculous into a tool of power and oppression, into a vital component of the colonial settlement, and a story in which ridicule both shapes the rhetoric which leads to genocide, and, eventually, unravels it.



ii. The ridiculous


The twin ideas of ridicule and the ridiculous are at the centre of the story and the titular island. People of the island know certain things are ridiculous. At stake, however, are the following questions: What is ridiculous?; ridiculous to whom?; and how does one use the ridiculous to undermine a ridiculous premise or ideology?

The official ruling structure of Gullstruck Island is ridiculous. There is a consensus of silence over the matter, but almost everyone on the island knows that it is ridiculous that the island is governed from the far north-east, from the town of Port Suddenwind where the colonial power, the Cavalcaste, first landed, and from where it can take months for the formal decrees, sent out on paper, to permeate the island. The system of Lords and Ladies Lost in each town, using the news posted in the local tidings huts to communicate, has created a parallel governance, one which operates at far greater speed than can the government in Port Suddenwind.

Everyone knows too that the edicts of Port Suddenwind are ridiculous:


Port Suddenwind was a joke. Everybody knew that the government there was a vast, creaking clockwork of laws, laws, laws, most of which even now had everything to do with the snowbound, horse-ridden wastes of the original Cavalcaste plains[…]. Port Suddenwind edicts could cope with thieves who stole sledges or furs, but they could not cope with those who ran off with jade or coconut rum. They could cope with murderers who tricked victims on to thin ice, but not those who boiled jellyfish pulp to make poisons… (26)


Compounding the situation, the Cavalcaste’s beliefs are ridiculous.


Many centuries before, the Cavalcaste homeland plains had been full of warring, horse-mounted clans fighting each other for land that they could dedicate to their own dead. The Ashlands were commonly placed at the centre of their cities so that they could be protected by the outer ring of the living. The problem was, of course, that once the Ashlands at the centre of the town were ‘full’ of the dead, there was nowhere for the dead to go but into the houses of the living. Families found themselves cohabiting with the urns of their ancestors, yielding them first one room and then another, until the living were squashed into a tiny corner of their own home. (179)


The Cavalcaste’s adherence to their belief system is so strong that they cannot reject it in the face of any other belief system, which was why they ignored the myths of the Lace about the volcanoes and settled in a valley between them in the first place. It was why, in their desire for revenge on the Lace who kidnapped them to appease the volcanoes, they chose a genocide so vicious that the valley, Mistleman’s Blunder, or Mistleman’s Chandlery, was hung with the bodies of Lace.The earliest genocide took place when the Lace were framed as murderous traitors, not merely by the Cavalcaste who they sacrificed to keep the volcanoes quiet, but by the entire culture of the island in which the Lace were to be trusted as negotiators. Involvement in the genocide against the Lace, which left their priests and Lost hanging from trees in Mistleman’s Blunder, h, , has knitted the islanders together.

Once they have committed genocide a first time, the people of the island (while they do not adopt the Cavalcaste’s strange beliefs) simply cannot afford to believe the Lace story of the volcanoes, about the King of Fans, his courtship of Lady Sorrow, the rivalry of bad temper of Lord Spearhead and Lord Crackgem for to do so would be to accept that the Lace sacrifice of the Cavalcaste who dared to settle on the slopes of Lord Crackgem, made as much inherent sense as does the Cavalcaste abandonment of the best land to the dead. The islanders must believe the story of the volcanoes is ridiculous and must ridicule it because otherwise they are complicit not in revenge, but genocide. The genocide becomes, as Igwara writes of the genocide in Rwanda, […] a technique for achieving national solidarity, ultimately in a state order without compassion and of law without justice. The killing itself was a mechanism for creating a new identity and a new political community for the Hutu.(1995:14)

Camber, the quiet man who stands behind Minster Prox, and, we learn early, is behind the campaign against the Lace, understands this, and how the ridiculous logic of belief forms threads which tie the peoples of Gullstruck Island more firmly to Cavalcaste interests, and Cavalcaste weltenschauung. Camber also understands crowds, and the manipulation of crowds by employing the language of conflagration and contagion. (Drury, 2002: 43, 48)

In order to accept both the first genocide and the proposed genocide as right, the people of Gullstruck must believe in the ideas that the Cavalcaste brought with them: that groupings may be stronger than mere communal loyalties, that race and ethnicity somehow trump the truth before their eyes, that the island is a hybrid population of the shipwrecked. Igwara has written of the situation in Rwanda, ‘Ethnicity is a social identity based on symbolic cultural differences. Whether such cultural differences are imaginary or real is irrelevant. What matters is that these perceived cultural differences play a part in an individual’s evaluation of his/her identity and actions in relation to others from within or outside his/her ethnic group.’ (1985:3) As the genocide in Gullstruck Island unravels, perceived cultural differences become intensely important to both the agents of genocide and to those trying to survive it. Both become absorbed in an ideology with the relentless inevitability of the screwball comedy — if the rhetorical ball rolls this way, the mind of the crowd must follow it.

The dominance of ancestor worship among the Cavalcaste is absolute and it consumes not just land, but lives. Camber, the agent provocateur who nurtures the social and economic tensions of the island and spins threads of rumour, is a victim of the logic of Cavalcaste theology. Camber’s ancestor’s ship ran aground, and she died before their lineage could be revealed, the ancestor urns she carried with her lost in the waves. To Camber’s mind, he is invisible and unconnected to the ancestors, but this does not free him; instead, without ancestor shrines and burial rites and the opportunity to gift his ancestors with grave goods, it places him permanently in debt. His only possibility is to extend his life, his will, to the support of every ancestor on Gullstruck, presumably so that he will thereby ensure the well- being of his own ancestors: and if the dead are ultimately the most important citizens of the island, then it is perfectly proper that they should displace the most marginal of the living, the Lace. Camber is a man of Tragedy, his life unraveling in hubris, self-ruin and self-immolation even as he sees himself as a man of honour. Camber is a man who exists in isolation because, without ancestors, he barely believes he exists. In contrast, when we meet the Superior of Mistleman’s Blunder, representative of Port Suddenwind, we find a man so firmly tied to his ancestors that he exists only in relation to them — an equally ridiculous belief in connectedness, yet one that will be his moral salvation.

The Cavalcaste provide their dead not just with grave goods, but with post-grave goods. They make them gifts of items which are intended to transubstantiate as real items in the afterlife. This system of belief has become central to the economy and particularly to the support of artists and craftsmen. The Superior is the ultimate only child, descended from two magnificent but shrinking lines. Where Camber has become obsessed with the land the dead need, the Superior has become obsessed with the need to keep his ancestors in the luxury to which they were accustomed in life: some of these luxuries are imitations, but some are the real thing. The Superior has become obsessed with the idea that his ancestors need soap.

The Cavalcaste can laugh at ‘native superstition’, can humour it and manipulate it (as they manipulate the beliefs of the Ashwalkers who believe the ashes of the dead grant them power), their understanding is reduced by their inclination to ridicule it, and is further reduced by their insistence that their beliefs are true. Much like the British in India, the Cavalcaste filter all economic and domestic policy through this lens and demand that others do so also. Yet it is precisely the Superior’s obsession that will provide the thread at the end of the tangle which Hathin pulls to unravel Camber’s plans.

Having escaped from the Ashwalker, and left Arilou somewhere safe, Hathin, is captured in a general round up of all the Lace. Hathin can see the ridiculous in the Superior’s obsession with his ancestors, but because she is Lace, takes it absolutely seriously. The Lace cannot laugh at the Cavalcaste or even the effect of Cavalcaste beliefs on lives such as that of the Superior, for one of the most important powers of a dominant group is to decide, who or what is ridiculous. Hathin, rather than regarding her own views as “true” and others as ridiculous must perform the feat of understanding that others live in their own truths.

The Superior’s need for someone to take soap up the volcano to the dead, leads him to grant Hathin refuge in return for service, and later, at her suggestion, to create a ‘stockpile’ of spare Lace in case anything happens to Hathin. His obsession with service to the dead, over-rides, in his mind, the orders that Lace be rounded up. The Superior’s logic is impeccable, rooted in the Cavalcaste belief that the dead come first. It is one of the ironies that, kept ignorant of Camber’s grand plan, he therefore subverts a greater gift to the dead (of land). The Superior’s ‘stockpile’ is an extension, not a departure of the distorting nature of his beliefs. What little we know of people who resist genocidal behaviour, whether on a slow or long path, is that they rarely see themselves as resistors, than as people who did not wish to change direction, to change the way they understood their own lives. Oskar Schindler, the factory manager keen to keep his business running, willing to extend his own personal corruption and tradition of bribes to the new order, was unwilling to allow the new order to reconfigure his life, until he had dragged his heels so long, involved his forced labour in his plans to the degree that he and they had become collaborators in a larger project. More recently Paul Rusebagina, the manager of the hotel Mille Collines in Rwanda, who believed that his role in life was ‘to negotiate contracts and charged to give shelter to those who need it’ (Rusebagina and Zoellber, 2006: xvii-xviii) continued to do so when those who needed it were refugees, and the negotiators were genocides. As Rusebagina created a place of safety, so too does the Superior. As Schindler discovered that he needed his workers to help protect him, eventually the Superior is protected by the Lace and the Reckoning.

But simply going along with one’s own best interests is not always enough, and eventually, the Superior, freed from his ancestor worship by the discovery that the Sours (a tribe living on the sides of the volcanos) have turned the ashes into dye to protect themselves from the volcanoes’ gaze, turns his obsessive protectiveness from the dead to the living: he has his moment of choice and, freed from tradition but not freed from self, he becomes the saviour of the valley’s occupants when he accepts that the volcanoes are about to erupt and orders the evacuation.

As is clear from the discussion, what is ridiculous cannot be disconnected from ridiculous to whom?: a highly politicised and dangerous challenge and one which is shaped through the focalization of the text. The implied reader sees Camber and the Superior through the eyes of the Lace child Hathin, and to Hathin the beliefs of the Calvacaste are both deadly serious and true, and ridiculous, but the reader also sees the Lace through the worried and suspicious eyes of Minster Prox, a kind man who yet cannot help but understand the Lace as untrustworthy savages. The twin position is part of the architecture of the island and the novel. It facilitates everyday life on the island, as each grouping accepts that a people’s superstitions work for them, but it is not a neutral position: each people also assumes that what they believe is universally true, while what others believe is only contingently true. When this is combined with the power structures of the island it becomes a weapon, one which for much of the time allows those with power who accept their own belief as real, but others as merely superstition, to use belief as pressure points. The Superior and Camber use the beliefs of their subject peoples, but because they do so out of condescension, they never understand them as a genuine way of understanding the world, so that they are able only to manipulate the surface. The result is that they see the cage of superstitions of others (employing Ashwalkers as bounty hunters), while never noticing their own cages. However, this twin position also provides cracks in the social architecture of the island which a member of a marginalised group can split, for it is incumbent on those lower in status to understand and to a degree accept the beliefs of the higher classes in order to survive.

Hathin manipulates the Superior into protecting large numbers of Lace, and then manipulates the service she does him — taking soap to the dead — to gain the support of the Sours, a group who live on the mountain and who are protecting Arilou. They bring it back down again to be sold to her in the market to then take it back up the mountain ad infinitum. As Levine has argued, this manipulation of the beliefs of the Masters is the survival tactic of the trickster, (Levine: 59-78). The trickster manifests in Gullstruck Island as the Gripping Bird, a mythical figure who brings change. Hathin will be able to manipulate the Superior, and to by pass Camber, and eventually, it is intimated, to become the avatar of the Gripping Bird, precisely because she is outside their beliefs but willing to accept that they believe. Hathin believes that all beliefs are true for other people, for that has been her own experience of life, and of her relations with other people she meets, most notably, Jimboly, the crowd witch, whose ability with words Camber is manipulating.



iv. Language


Language and the power of words clearly fascinate Hardinge. They are the subject as well as driver of Fly By Night. The very direct language of Gullstruck Island is a shock after the sharp witticisms of Fly By Night and Verdigris Deep, until one realises that in this book, language and dexterity with language are not only at the heart of the network of distrust which permeates the story, but also are the key to the unraveling skein of genocide.

The first issue we are presented with is the degree to which the colonialist enterprise on Gullstruck is played out in the language in ways which can be recognised from our own Caribbean islands. Gullstruck has at least three languages: Lace, Cavalcaste or Doorsy, and Nundestruth. The Lace, marginalised from the social interweaving of the island, have preserved their own language. There are hints that other tribes have done something similar but not until we meet the Sours — and discover that Lady Arilou, playing truant from the Lost school, has learned to speak Sour — is the importance of a residual and private language explained in a characteristically throwaway comment, ‘For decades language had been the way that the Sours knew their own and shut everybody else out.’ (278-9) What the Sours have realised is that the Cavalcaste control the island through the imposition of language and with it, meaning. What the Cavalcaste have not realised, however, is that they are losing control precisely as they lose the control of language.

The governance of Gullstruck is dual: for every Governor or Superior sent from Port Suddenwind, there is a Lord or Lady Lost for the region. For every edict sent by pack train, there are letters pinned up in the tidings huts for the Lost to peruse and spread the news. For every word of Cavalcaste there are hundreds in Nundestruth.

Two languages form the lingua franca of the island. Cavalcaste, now known as Doorsy, or indoors language, is the language of civitas, in which legal documents are written and political business carried out. But Doorsy is in retreat, giving way to Nundestruth.


It was nobody’s language, everybody’s language, a stew of words taken from the tribes and the Cavalcaste alike. By the time the first settlers’ grandchildren were full-grown, they found that however carefully they taught their own children their ancestral tongue, the children caught the hybrid jabber in the streets and brought it home like mud on their boots. (28)


The bonds of Nundestruth are still fragile. It is a language of appropriation but its power is that of the marginal: it is subversive and it creates a shape in the world which argues for commonality and hybridity, but in some ways it is weak, it does not control the levers of the political world. The privilege which Cavalcaste/Doorsy retains is the privilege of naming and defining and disappearing. What is not named in Calvacaste/Doorsy, effectively does not exist, what is renamed in Calvacaste/Doorsy, becomes that thing. Camber tells the sick and feverish Minster Prox, who he has manoeuvred into the crucial position of authority:


Two hundred years ago, when our ancestors needed to find a way of purging Lace for the good of Gullstruck, they discovered that the existing Cavalacaste murder laws prevented the purge only if the Lace were legally considered to be people. And so they drew up a new law stating that if the Lace became too numerous or troublesome then legally they ceased to be people, and were considered to be…well…timber wolves..’ (171)


And if the Lace are timber wolves, then it an officer can order a cull. It is all terribly polite. As John Keane (among others) has observed ‘there are times and places when civilised manners can and do peacefully cohabit with mass murder.” (128). In this context, the ridiculous becomes logical, language become mutable. It becomes possible for Minster Prox, still feverish and ill and under the sway of Camber’s quiet, logical whispers, to say: ‘We’ll need to send armed men to Sweetweather,’ … ‘No more massacres. No more mob violence,’ (173) keeping a stream of thoughts far enough apart from each other that causal and consequential relations are disrupted. By the two thirds of the way through the novel Prox, an essentially nice man, is willing to countenance internment of the Lace on the volcanoes’ sides: ‘Between them, the dead and the volcanoes have all the best land. We cannot rob the dead — so that leaves the volcanoes.’ (321)

What Camber is manipulating is the locutionary or speech act (Austin, 1962); that understanding that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words justify the act and may, in the right circumstances, become the act. Language and control of language is the key to both the power structures and the manipulation of those structures. Because the Islanders know it is ridiculous that Port Suddenwind may taken ten years to consider an issue of vital importance, whether a trade agreement or a murder — they deal with it by creating a secondary level of authority in the Lost who can spread messages left for them to observe in the island’s message huts. This, though the islanders do not know it, is dangerous, for it means that the peoples of the island have become used to looking towards secondary, alternative authorities. When the Lost are all killed, the people of the island are ripe and ready for a new voice: in the absence of Rwandan Radio-Television Libre de Mille Collines or a Goebbels, they get the powerful tongue of Jimboly, the crowd witch. Jimboly is a puller of teeth, an inlayer of tooth plaques (which identify the Lace), a purveyor of toys and fancy goods, and a teller of stories. She is also a careful and malicious gossip. Hathin, once convinced by Jimboly to allow her to pull one of the uncomprehending Lady Arilou’s teeth, is the only person in the village of the Hollow Beasts who does not trust her: even at this early stage Hathin is, by virtue of her position as keeper of the barely spoken secret, outside the belief structure of the village — beliefs which include the faith that Jimboly is on their side. As the tale unravels, Jimboly emerges as a tool of whoever it is who wishes to destroy the Lace. It is her hints and sparks that turn neighbours against the Lace, her fragments of information that fuel the fires of genocide.

The genocide that Camber seeks to unleash on Gullstruck Island is rooted in precedent, but it is also grounded in a low level tolerance for insults and violence against the Lace. As both Banton and Lemarchand point out when discussing Rwanda, genocide is not a spontaneous uprising, it is orchestrated and takes place within supportive institutional structures (Banton,1995: xxv) which include both the formal and informal structures of society. In Rwanda there had been a number of smaller massacres in the four years before hand (three hundred or so at a time) to which the world and particularly the French had turned a blind eye (parallel with missing Lace). (Lemarchand, 1995: 65-70).

The language of pre-genocidal societies is under-studied: most historians and theorists suppose the causal link between the casual derogatory joke and eventual violence. Gregor Benton, however, has made a study of the complexity of the jokes which are told in hatred, both by the haters and the hated. Recorded samples from Cossacks in the late nineteenth century for example include:


When you baptise a Jew, people said, hold him under water for at least five minutes to make sure he does not revert.’ (44)


Or the joke couched in ambivalence:


A Cossack steals a Jew’s horse and is up in court, claiming he found it. The Jew protests he was whipped off the horse: ‘The Cossack, after a moment’s hesitation: ‘Well, I found both of them, but I had no use for the Jew.’


‘To be sure.’ Benton argues, ‘The laugh is on the Jew, but he keeps his dignity and our sympathy.’ (48) Yes, but it is at the expense of accepting humiliation as the price of survival. Frances Hardinge does not make much use of the explicit joke but this understanding of jokes as both poison and protection, is something Hathin is vividly aware of. Seeking information Hathin walks into the local township where she runs into some of the local young men.


Soon somebody would say something that was sharper and harder, but it would still be a joke. And then there would be a remark like a punch in the gut, but made as a joke. And then they would detain her if she tried to leave, and nobody would stop them because it was all only a joke. (31)


Only a joke. The path to genocide may not be paved with jokes, but it is clear that jokes give legitimacy to ideas that might be too harsh to express in the here and now. Each time the majority laugh at a joke at the expense of a victim group, it becomes harder for members of that group to object to the ‘humour’ operating the coercion of consensus. Husband writes, ‘To challenge the propriety of their actions is not only to be damned as a bad sport who cannot take a joke, it is also to define yourself as an extremist who is beyond the decency of the consensus politics of race relations; where tolerance is all things to all people, you are political’. (1998: 152). Furthermore, jokes wear out. Each time a joke is retold, the entropic nature of narrated jokes mean that the teller needs to find a way to raise a louder laugh: the encouragement is there, in the nature of joke exchange cultures, to push it further, to make it yet more unpleasant (see, for example, the intensification of the jokes around the Challenger disaster), so that it can reach a point, as it did in Rwanda, where the ‘joke’ is a thin veil over explicit hatred, where by 1994 Radio-Television Libre de Mille Collines merely describing Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ and as ‘snakes’ could be excused — should the necessity arise — as a ‘joke’. (Chalk, 1999: 99; also Li, 2007: 98 ). As simile extends into metaphor, it slides into an insistence that one is describing reality.

On Gullstruck, anti-Lace jokes are encoded into the landscape, so that ‘north of the trench had been nicknamed Mistleman’s Chandler, a grimly humorous reference to the many trees and vines from which the district’s Lace had been hanged, like tallow candles left to drip.’ (174) and people know that what they know of the Lace is true:


The Lace who had killed Milady Page and Inspector Skein and all the other Lost so that only their own Lady Lost would survive. The Lace who used their eerie powers to poison crops and move boundary stones and put ague juice in the springs. The Lace who spoke to volcanoes and trained snakes to kill and cut children to pieces with obsidian knives. (128-9)


The jokes and the sly comments are reified and become themselves as dangerous as knives. For the victims there is little recourse: Hathin cannot protest the jokes without exposing herself, she can only appease with the smile of the anxious primate, but because the Lace smile has acquired the reputation of representing duplicity, it stokes the anxieties of hatred.



v. Survival through Hybridity and the core of things.


Gullstruck Island is a screwball tragedy. It unravels towards disaster constructed from obsession and from individuated belief. The ball that knocks it off course is hybridity: hybridity of belief, hybridity of ethnicity, and the effect of both of these on dissolving obsession. That ball is Hathin, whose obsessive revenge quest derails Camber’s plans. The attempts to destroy the Lace begin to unravel at the site of the very first genocide: when the village of the Hollow Beasts is destroyed, it is Hathin and Lady Arilou who survive and Hathin who leads her sister through the mountains, spreading the possibility of survival. Both children represent hybridity. Of Lady Arilou we have already learned, in an eerie foreshadowing,


‘It was as though some divine hand had picked the very best out of the village’s mess of bloodlines for this one child — just enough strange blood for a Lost, just enough pirate blood for those grey eyes, rich tawny skin, high elegant cheekbones, just enough Lace blood to give her an eerie sense of otherness…you might keep her and throw away the rest of the village. (16)


It is Lady Arilou who will make it possible for Hathin to gain the assistance of the Sours to discover how the Lost have been killed, for Lady Arilou has taken on one of the historic roles of the Lace, that of go-between, and is not ‘oozy brained’ but has spent her time haunting the Sours and it is their language and their families to which she has become acculturated. It is one of the ironies of the book — and one which exasperates Hathin — that Arilou has been truant from the Lost ‘school’ (where the trap for Lost minds was laid) and has rejected Lost culture. Arilou’s consequent cultural hybridity challenges the Sour’s separateness and reminds islanders of the Lace’s original position in the island.

Hathin’s revenge quest drives her boundary transgressions: revengers must use whatever comes to hand, and Hathin makes use of everyone’s beliefs: she manipulates the Superior, Jimboly, and eventually the gods themselves. Taking on the beliefs of the Sours and the Ashwalkers that the ashes of the dead hide people from the volcanoes, Hathin constructs a rescue plan for the interned Lace.


By the time the clouds started to part, a strange community of fat little figures could be seen crouched by the wall in the compound. Cloth bodies, earth bellies, heads made of buckets, legs made of sticks, feet of stones. If the Lord Spearhead looked closely, he would see that these were not his prisoners, but Lords seldom look closely at those beneath them.

Meanwhile a large, crouching gaggle of frightened Lace crept down the hill, all trying to remain as close as possible to the great blue flag which those at the heart of the crowd carried spread on their backs. Their only hope was to reach the safety of the plains before Lord Spearhead realised that he had been tricked. (448)


Hathin’s deliberate hybridisation of belief is the route to change. Hathin begins by accepting the wrongness of the Lace sacrifices to the volcanoes, understanding this as one of the threads in the weave of the current situation. She continues by mutating the beliefs of others to rescue the Lace — those of the Superior, and of the Sours, and later of Jimboly. Most of all, Hathin reconfigures the idea of revenge to disconnect it from the notion of death, and killing and instead take as her revenge the unraveling of the colonialist society and the reweaving it into a new form. By the end, Hathin herself has emerged as the agent of change and the representation of hybridity. Where once it was Arilou who she assumed had pirate blood, now Hathin looks into the water and sees,


‘A pirate was looking back at her.’ ‘For the first time she wondered if her pirate ancestor had not been beautiful and fine-featured like Arilou. Perhaps he had found himself lying on this beach amid the flinders of this ship, and looked around with wide-apart eyes and a patch of troubled water in the middle of his brow, and thought, Well, this is the way the world is. Let us make the best of things and set about surviving here, shall we? (498-9)


Hathin, still essentially a child, a child who is more focused on the now than the future, steps into the Gripping Bird dance, claps her hands, and creates change.



Works Cited

Hardinge, F., Fly By Night. Oxford, Macmillan, 2005.

Hardinge, F., Verdigris Deep. Oxford, Macmillan (_]US: [_Well Wicked), 2007.

Hardinge, F., Gullstruck Island. Oxford, Macmillan (US: The Island of the Lost), 2009.


Banton, M., Learning from Tragedy. Ethnic Hatred. O. Igwara. London, ASEN Publications, 2005: xv-xxvi

Benton, G., The Origins of the Political Joke. Humour in Society: Resistance and Control. C. Powell and G. E. C. Paton. London, Macmillan Press,1988: 33-55.

Chalk, F., Hate Radio in Rwana. The Path of a Genocide: the Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire. H. Adelman and A. Suhrke. New Brunswick, USA; London., Transaction Publishers, 1999: 93-107.

Drury, J., “‘When the mobs are looking for witches to burn, nobody’s safe’: talking about the reactionary crowd.” Discourse and Society 13(1), 2002: 41-73.

Gehring, W. D., Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference. Lanham, Maryland and Oxford, The Scarecrow Press Ltd, 2002.

Igwara, O. Ethicity, Nationalism and Genocide in Rwanda.Ethnic Hatred. O. Igwara. London, ASEN Publications, 1995: 1-18.

Keane, John, Civil Society: Old images, new visions. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Lemarchand, R., Rwanda: the rationality of genocide. Ethnic Hatred. O. Igwara. London, ASEN Publications, 1985: 65-70.

Li, D., Echoes of Violence: Considerations on Radio and Genocide in Rwanda. A. Thompson. London; Ann Arbor, MI.; Kampala, Uganda., Pluto Press and Fountain Publishers, 2007: 90-109.

Rusesabagina, P. and T. Zoellner, An Ordinary Man. London, Bloomsbury, 2006.

Buried Thoughts

This very short commentary arose out of a brief on line discussion in which my correspondent argued that the use of an invented peoples for the Nation in Nation was an act of cultural appropriation. In the process of the discussion I suggested Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge as another example. The conversation did not go very far because my correspondent had not read Hardinge’s work, and because I was not sure why I saw Pratchett’s choices as legitimate (or even if I did). This is a brief attempt to consider both books, both as acts of appropriation and a post-colonial comments on colonialism. I cannot remember where it was first published, or if it was published at all.



Writing a Ruritania in a post-colonialist world.


Terry Pratchett’s Nation is rather unusual in that it is not a comic novel. I’d go so far as to suggest that the comic interruptions (the footnotes) and the comic characters (the hymn singing captain of the Sweet Judy) are the weakest elements of the novel and disrupt rather than, as in his Discworld and Johnny books, reinforce the moral message of the book. This message is always and ever, ‘think for yourself’. The supreme god, the one that our hero finds himself wondering about, is IMO, which may or may not stand for ‘In My Opinion’, which is not a bad bit of humility for a god to embrace. Some commentators have seen this as the novel in which Pratchett finds god, but this is a misreading of the hyper-real belief structures of fantasy. A character cannot be an atheist in a world in which gods really are manifest, as some are in this book, and the best one can be is a believer of the Republic of Heaven on Earth, as so many seventeenth century intellectuals were, or someone who argues with god, which both of which describe Mau: ‘I think that if IMO wants a perfect world, he wants it down here.’ (353|)

Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island has comic moments but they are always tragic-comic, the comedy of seeing someone make a choice that to them seems sensible but entangles them further in a mode of belief that will kill them. Gullstruck Island is set on an island in a southern hemisphere somewhere. Unlike Nation it is probably not here. The island is home to a number of apparently indigenous tribes each with their ways and their distinguishing features, and to a group of invaders, the Cavalcaste, who have come from Northern climes and insist on keeping to their old customs, which range from the eccentric (wearing spurs even though there are no horses) to the deadly (giving over the best land to the dead). The Cavalcaste are white, and the indigenous peoples are not, but that simplifies a complex situation in which very few of the peoples are ‘pure’. It is perhaps clearer that magic does exist in the land of the Nation where Mau seeks to look beneath it, than on Gullstruck, where as the book proceeds it becomes more and more unclear what is magic and what is a consensus belief system whose power is conducted through conviction. The powers of the Lost are so thoroughly naturalised and rendered mundane through the character of Arilou (a stroke of genius that, to place the greatest power in the hands of someone who has no interest in it whatsoever and never will) that they cease to feel magical.

Nation is set in an alternative British Empire, one which has been struck by plague (the Russian flu) and in which the king and one hundred and thirty seven heirs to the throne have died. A ship is sent to collect the heir who is serving as a governor in Africa, and his daughter who is already on the way. As this is happening, far away in the Pelagian Sea, a tidal wave destroys many of the small islands and their inhabitants, leaving Mau, a boy who had been away seeking manhood on Boys Island alone as a sole survivor. Mau is shell shocked and traumatised, and as he buries the dead on his island he dismisses the white girl as a ghost. In fact she is Ermintrude, who much prefers being called Daphne, who is unbeknownst to herself now the heir to the British throne and the Empire. Nation proceeds along two main threads, one in which Mau questions the voices of the Grandfathers, and the existence of the gods and gathers the sea’s refugees into the shape of a new nation. The second thread is the one of contact between Mau and Daphne, and contact between Mau’s culture and that represented by, contained in, and plundered from the Sweet Judy. For our purposes it’s this second thread that is important.

Mau can see from the contents of the Sweet Judy that his people are poor. Until then, he had known them as the richest island in the world. From the Sweet Judy they rifle wood, and metal, and tools in quantities never known of, but as Mau sees, are merely scavengers, unable to make what they see here. The Sweet Judy he realises, is dangerous, it can encourage complacency, and although he does not use the term, can create a cargo cult. But what the Sweet Judy does teach Mau is that new learning is possible. Ironically, Daphne, when she discovers the treasures of the island’s caves, goes the other way, pointing to all the things (astronomy, navigation, stone and metalwork) that Mau’s people knew thirty thousand years before. Although Daphne it should be said has already found worth in Mau’s people, and the knowledge they carry, it is clear that she finds them most worthy for what they have done, while Mau finds them worthy for what they might do. This is unproblematised. For all that the evangelical beliefs of the Captain of the Sweet Judy are mocked, his core belief in God is never set to the question in the way that Mau’s beliefs are. Mau rejects the Grandfathers and Daphne and her father reject the conventions and mores of his mother, but the first is a rejection of a genuine fantastical voice and an entire culture, the second is simply choosing to ignore a powerful eccentric who is understood to be slightly mad by everyone. Mau unpeels the validated assumptions of his world. Daphne steps into them and takes Mau with her. In the end, Mau’s choices and new understandings are validated not because they are true (although they are) but because they come to closely match the culture with power.

This reading seems to be reinforced by the arrival of Daphne’s father; the new king although he does not immediately know this. Daphne prevents him from planting a flag, shows him the wonders of the island and persuades him not to simply appropriate them. Once he does know he is the King, she encourages him to strike a deal with Mau, in which the islanders become not part of the Empire but part of the Royal Society, and in return for access to their secrets, will receive regular ‘cargo’, but cargo that will include teachers and lecturers. It is a good choice in political terms, but whose consequences are elided over.

In the very last chapter, we learn that the Nation has become a people of the stars, who wrap their children’s fists around telescopes not spears when they are born; who are both western and non-western. This apparently non-exploitative route has been generated by just three individuals: Mau, Daphne and the King. What it lacks is any kind of contextual and institutional structure. Pratchett, usually far more aware of the limits of ‘men of goodwill’, here has chosen to see them as the solution to everything. The brief chapter at the end closes off the possibilities of a history in which traders and merchants and antiquary thieves ignore the protests of the crown, or stir up trouble so that they can demand ‘protection’, or even one in which the ‘science tourism’ destabilises the culture and reduces the Nation to either servants or marginals. The evils of colonialism are depicted as individual evils. It is a rare example of a Pratchett novel attempting to depoliticise an ethical issue (it is a sharp contradiction to the undercutting of Carrot’s desire to Do Good in Jingo).

Frances Hardinge has a much more politicized take on the issue. The crisis on Gullstruck is triggered by the death of the Lost, people who can separate their soul from their body and act as the communication links across the island. Only one Lost survives, Arilou, who may not be a Lost, but only an imbecile. Her sister, Hathin, takes care of her and one of the fascinating elements of the book is that although Hathin is positioned for both the reader and those she walks with to see her as the protagonist, for much of the time neither Hathin nor her enemies realise that she is. This is a metaphor for the whole book in which the death of the Lost covers up a conspiracy against the Lace, a people who were once go betweens on the island and are now pariahs. which in turn covers up a conspiracy to expand farming into dangerous areas near the volcanoes (of which more in a moment) which in turn covers up mining which in turn covers up a food shortage, which finally covers up a conspiracy to expel the living in favour of the dead. Most of the people involved in this convoluted conspiracy know neither its protagonist or all its elements. They can be tied in to it not because they are evil of stupid, but because of the very structures of colonialism which Hardinge sets out to explore.

Gullstruck Island is volcanic. Everyone knows this. Everyone keeps one eye on the volcanoes. But because the knowledge about the volcanoes is held by a pariah community, one whose relationship to the volcanoes is at the heart of their pariah status — they sacrificed the newcomers to the volcanoes to appease them, when the newcomers started settling on the volcanic lands — it has become suspect. More than suspect, knowledge held by the Lace must be wrong, because to question its wrongness is to question the genocide meted out on the Lace in vengeance for their actions.

 The process by which Hardinge gets us to the acceptance of Lace knowledge is and isn’t straightforward. Like Pratchett in Nation, and like many white post-colonial writers, her main route is simply to validate their knowledge: by the end of the book Hathin knows that her people’s stories of Lady Sorrow, King of Fans and Lord Spearhead are encoded information about the path that the volcanoes take when they blow. But this is a fantasy, and Hardinge uses that to complicate the issue and to move away from Pratchett’s approach of both pointing to the “truth” of old knowledge, and validating new: it isn’t just that Lace tales contain a grain of truth. Hardinge approaches the problem from both sides: on the one side we see people who think they are logical and above all that superstitious nonsense of the indigenous peoples, engaging in complex webs of superstition. The Cavalcaste, as I have already mentioned, abandon good land to the dead: their cities are doughnuts, dead on the inside, living on the outside. They allow their dead to push them out of their land. As a result, the Island can no longer feed itself. Although the Superior (a governor) who we meet late in the novel, obsessed with his ancestors, is an extreme manifestation of the assumption that the dead are more important than the living, he is only the logical conclusion of this belief. Furthermore, Hardinge chooses not to actively destroy this faith in the minds of the inhabitants of the novel: instead, people’s beliefs become complex webs of your belief and my beliefs all of which are true for all of us even if we aren’t sheltered by them, and which, therefore, we can choose to be sheltered by. When the Lace discover that the Ancestor ashes have all been stolen, they concur in the belief that this matters. Those who stole the Ashes, the Sours (who use the ash to make dye) also concur in the belief that the ash of the dead is important. That is why they stole it. Three sets of beliefs about the ash of the dead merge. The culture of Gullstruck Island allows people to embrace and accept each other’s superstitions without themselves accepting full belief: Jimbolly the crowd witch knows that the small bird she has tied to her collar can run off with the thread of her soul. Others do not share the belief for themselves, but fully believe that it is true for Jimbolly. Similarly, although the Lace do not use the ash of their ancestors to produce a protective dye, they are willing to subscribe to the beliefs of the Sours and shelter from Lord Spearhead under the cloth the Sours wove and dyed for that purpose.

The culture that has emerged on Gullstruck Island is not one that seeks to strip back ‘superstition’ in search of truth but one which sees and accepts multiple and polysemic truths that one can ‘borrow’ for a while.The Cavalcaste are ridiculous in one way, but the core of the ridiculousness, the superstition itself, is never reduced to ridicule. What is, however, is the way they hang on to tradition more generally: the Cavalcaste, like invaders everywhere, have brought with them their own legal codes. It is fascinating that in exploring colonialism, it is the invader’s code that is held up to scrutiny here, and not, as so often, that of the invaded.

The Cavalcaste come from a land of ice, snow, pine trees and horses. Their laws are all about the ways one needs to live in these circumstances: the result is a law code that knows how to deal with a stolen horse, but has not been adapted to the poaching of pearl fishing rights. As the novel unravels so too does are sense of a land ‘ruled’ by the Cavalcaste. Certainly they control the economy of the land, but the degree to which they control the culture of the island is disputable. The culture is hybridising. The Cavalcaste influence the social structure, the way in which respect is accorded, but they cannot influence the ways in which people interact nor the ways in which people understand the world around them and how they understand ‘truth’.

This is where Hardinge and Pratchett’s books part company: Hardinge constructs a spiral of converging truths, Pratchett remains in sift mode. Mau’s contemporaries continue to believe in superstition about the gods, but the tales are linked very firmly to truth and preserved only as (as he, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart put it in another book) lies to children. Whereas Hardinge renders the Cavalcaste exactly as superstition ridden as the other islanders, and demonstrates only that their tales are the wrong tales for this time and place, Pratchett, for all he makes fun of some of the Empire folk, endorses their truth as fundamentally more true (there are good reasons for this, I’m not about to argue with astronomy) and for him the balance of power is about the ownership of truth. This is, I think, encoded in the ways in which each constructs the language of conversation. The history of the British Empire is mostly of other people learning English, and it is a significant challenge to the expectations of the arriving Empire that Pratchett has Daphne learn the language of the Islanders instead, but because he himself is writing in English, the language of the fictional British Empire in the book, the power shift this should entail is lost. Hardinge takes a different route: although she writes in English, this is used both to represent the language of the Lace and the Cavalcaste, true, but Hardinge has also created another language. As Cavalcaste has become the language of the inside, and hence “Doorsy”, the language of the streets, a mixture of Cavalcaste and the languages of the island has developed, still recogniseably a Creole, “Nundestruth” (Not under this roof) is rendered as a creole and creates a powerful locale in the novel where “we” the reader cannot easily regard either Lace or Cavalcaste as representative of “us”, and reminds us that the use of Standard English to represent Lace and Doorsy, is a representation. While the two languages are not equal in authority in the novel — an issue Hardinge draws our attention too — she avoids compounding the problem by lending the authority of English to the ruling language.

This brings us to my original consideration: does the Ruritanian nature of both these tales matter? Is there a disrespect in conjuring a culture from recognisable cloth but not tying it to the specific location, or does the Ruritanian context add something that remains of value. Nation and Gullstruck Island are both immersive/otherworld fantasies, but Nation is set in a world that seems to be connected to ours (an alternate world from one of the Diana Wynne Jones multiverses perhaps, Chrestomanci would certainly not be out of place). Gullstruck Island is connected metaphorically — the pattern of our world is northern invaders of equatorial lands — but there are no direct connections. Nation is the classic Ruritania. Ruritanias exist in the interstercise of recognised lands, their role has traditionally been to provide a sentimentalised and romantic view not just of a distant mode of living, but of distant problems: that Ruritanias often contained secret heirs was undoubtedly connected to the British nineteenth century romanticisation of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the other Stuart exiles and the tendency to forget that hidden princes are more likely to trigger bloody civil wars than cheering crowds. Ruritanias are places in which to displace concern, they are closely linked to the patterns of utopias as contexts in which to engage in political experiment, and they not unconnected to patterns of Orientalism, both modes are rooted in the notion that the “other culture” is fundamentally unchanging. As a result both these forms are marked by the lack of interest in long term consequence. If you take a place seriously, then introducing a missing heir is a recipe for disaster, not for church bells and bliss (see Eva Ibbotson’s The Dragonfly Pool (2009) or Peter Dickinson’s Shadow of A Hero (1993) for a moderately sarcastic consideration of this trope). In effect, the willingness to create a Ruritania to try out an idea, might inherently be a sign of disrespect, it is only possible because one expects the people of this land to behave differently to oneself.

That is not intended as a comment on either Pratchett or his intentions as a narrator, but rather to suggest that even when coupled with a determination to respect people of other cultures and colours, it is extremely hard to break the pattern of the Ruritanian/Orientalist mode if one replicates the structure. The existence of the British Empire in this novel, however exaggerated, however mocked, creates a ‘normal’ space in the neighbourhood of which everything else becomes quaint.

Gullstruck Island is every bit as appropriative as Nation. Where Pratchett has chosen the cultures of the South Pacific, Hardinge in an afterword talks about her experience with New Zealand although she insists that this is not based entirely on that knowledge. I am not in a position to judge either this or any notion of “authenticity”, but I think the elements that break it out of the problems of Ruritania are twofold, the first is the issue of change: neither Gullstruck nor any of its peoples, are ever depicted as unchanging. In particular, the Lace are a culture set up to embrace change in that they do not believe in the preservation of the memory of people. Souls are set to the winds and become dolphins. Change is part of life, adaptation is part of life. So that when everything does change for Hathin, she is psychologically oriented to just getting on with it. The role of unchanging tradition, is given instead to the invader/coloniser Cavalacaste (a very nice touch which reminds the reader that those who impose unchangingness on others are frequently unaware of their own rigidities). The second element is that issue of truth and knowledge. Everything that Mau uncovers, while speaking to the knowledge of his ancestors, reinforces the degree to which his nation has “fallen”, for all that this is a story of ‘uplift’, in the end, the Nation is unable to rescue itself and must be rescued by others, it becomes therefore someone else’s experiment, it becomes the yard in which the British Empire (in the form of the Royal Society) can play. In contrast the Lace on Gullstruck may be on the road to reintegration, but it is into a newly negotiated society. I think it is no surprise that there is no afterword to this book, because the future we can see is so much less predictable. The Cavalcaste may regroup, but we already know they are no longer as “pure” as they once were, and many of their ancestor shrines are destroyed, and they themselves set adrift on an empty religious sea. Unlike the British in Nation the Cavalcaste are not part of something apparently stable from which they can draw an insistence on Cavalcaste ways. The storytrope of Gullstruck Island has been the Gripping Bird, the bringer of change, and by the end the Gripping Bird manifested perhaps as Hathin, has been all over the island. If Ruritanias do not host change, then Gullstruck Island is not a Ruritania, and nor can it be orientalised. This release from political stasis does not release the book from challenges of appropriation, but because the absence of stasis also means the absence of apparent solutions of the kind Pratchett uses to conclude his narrative, there is far less sense of a forced and politicised interpretation. Interpretation of the events of the book, and interpretation of the off the page consequences, are left off the page (as they were in the picaresque, Fly by Night, 2005). The author has chosen not to control the future, but to leave it in the hands of the characters which is possibly as close to a post-colonialist ideology as it may be possible to get.

Rejected by its original commissioning editor, this review was then taken by New York Review of Science Fiction, June, 2011. I have adored teaching this book, despite my strong criticisms of the gender washing of the genre. I still think it the best book about science fiction to have been written so far.



Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction.




To date, almost every introduction to science fiction has had a distinctly historical and historicised bent. Furthermore, of the critical introductions to science fiction, there has remained a divide between those written by independent scholars in the fan community (or those academics working from outside the literary critical discourse), and those written by literary theorists. Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is the first introduction to the field whose critical paradigm successfully connects the fan understanding of the genre with the academic, and which brings historicity and critical theory into a creative engagement.

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is a distinctively useful book that is aesthetically pleasing because its theme is the aesthetics of utility and of the utility of critical terms and critical modes. Seven Beauties (as I will abbreviate it) is one of those books which for the most part outlines and elucidates with great grace what we all vaguely know but which we very much needed someone to pull together. The historical route has pulled in our understanding of what sf is on the way, with an essentially Whiggish sensibility of historical process. Csicsery-Ronay turns this around. Taking for granted the emergence and development of the structures and modes of sf, he sets out to explain how they work, how they are valued and the ideological weight they carry in the genre. Inevitably, I have a number of issues to raise, but I regard Seven Beauties as the best introductory text for quite some time, as well as one of the most interesting critical works for graduates and scholars.

Although much of the language of Seven Beauties, and most of the critics cited, are from the academy (and some of the sentences are unnecessarily laden with opaque vocabulary), the beauties which Csicsery-Ronay identifies, and the sub-categories into which he divides them, are instantly recognizable to the Independent critic and scholar of science fiction. There is very little in here to excite the ‘fan v. critic’ debate, and rather more to demonstrate the degree to which so many of today’s academic sf critics are part and parcel of fandom.

In his preface, Csicsery-Ronay outlines both his motivation and his intentions. Faced with the absence of science fiction from and the minds of his preferred critics (Lucács, Auerbach, Bakhtin, Northrop Frye, and Edward Said), he has set out to use their tools as a filter to understand the narrative and technical threads with which science fiction is woven. In this, he claims to be ‘Old School’ by which I presume he means that this is essentially a Leavisite text: theory is present, but it remains in the background, allowing close reading of texts (both fiction and sf theory) to take centre stage. What is very pleasing is that Csicsery-Ronay uses theory with great care. Too often ‘theory’ papers attempt to squeeze the genre text into the theory. Csicsery-Ronay is extraordinarily careful to demonstrate the limits of theorists who were not themselves interested in genre. The most attractive element of Seven Beauties for me, was the degree to which Csicsery-Ronay encouraged the reader to pay close attention to the way in which criticism is constructed, even if at times this was at the expense of the fictional text. Csicsery-Ronay’s goals are to comprehend science fictionality ‘as a way of thinking about the world’ (ix), and to understand science fiction as a critical tapestry: to his mind the seven key colours of this tapestry are fictive neology, fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, the science fictional sublime, the science fictional grotesque, and the technologiade, each of which he asks us to understand as cognitive attractionsmental schemes _]or[_tools for thought. Seven Beauties elucidates why we have reached consensus around these often ‘riven, indecisive, chaotic, sometimes corrupt, always ludic’ (8) ideas, and explains the power of that consensus. Csicsery-Ronay challenges us to consider whether we find the set full, partial, or arbitrary and as he describes sf so too should one approach this book as an invitation to call ‘into question all verities, except curiosity and play.’ (x)

Launching into the introduction, Csicsery-Ronay quickly aligns himself to an understanding of science fiction as essentially a popular genre, but defines this as a genre of entertainment, neatly avoiding the small problem that sf is not, and never has been, very popular in terms of market share. Moving on quickly, he then asserts that this does not prevent the genre from developing sophisticated techniques and addresses, and aligns this with the development of ‘technoscience’ and the increasing awareness among the population of the transformations which technoscience is effecting. I am not sure how much Csicsery-Ronay and I part company here: I am not convinced that sf and scientific awareness of any kind necessarily share the same trajectory given that the current scientific literacy of the population as compared to scientists is in weaker ratio than it was, say in the 1930s, and sf movies at least have never been more popular; but Csicsery-Ronay clearly addresses this point in the fourth beauty, ‘Imaginary Science’, so it is merely a moment’s doubt. Later he clarifies that in the modern world the presence of genre elements in many media productions, and the constant clash between every day life and the challenges of new science and new technologies, create genre awareness, a mode of science fictionality. ‘It is from sf’s thesaurus of images that we draw many of our metaphors and models for understanding our technologized world’ (2). I would agree with this, but would add that it is from the thriller that much of the world draws its mode of engagement with those metaphors, which is why so many of the politico-scientific issues he mentions here are approached by the general population with fear and loathing, rather than the awe and wonder of the sf reader: it is an issue I would like to have seen discussed in the chapter on the grotesque. I do not disagree with Csicsery-Ronay but feel that here (and in a number of other places) he conflates/collapses the audience for this book with the market audience (in a variety of configurations).

From here Csicsery-Ronay moves on to the key nexus that informs this text: ‘In the past forty years, not only have sf artists produced more artistically ambitious works than in the previous hundred, but works of criticism have established the foundations for definition and self-examination of mature artistic movements.’ (2). Csicsery-Ronay regards genre criticism as integral to The Project. What he wants us to focus on is what he feels are ‘gaps’, the creative space in which the beauties of science fiction thrive, first the ‘gap’ between the fancy which conjures idea of transformation, and the technological developments which make it possible to envisage them. Csicsery-Ronay sees this as a mythmaking process, in which the explanation of scientific process and possibility is embedded in what Pratchett, Cohen and Stewart in [_The Science of Discworld _]have called lies told to children, in which the audience for science fiction is cast as the wondering child. Csicsery-Ronay conceives it thus: ‘Imaginary worlds of sf are pretended resolutions of dilemmas insoluble and often barely perceived in the present.’ (3) They generate two related discursive paths: ethics and possibility. Sf, Csicsery-Ronay argues, is inherently future oriented because it is inherently discursive, but it is also linked to the past because it generates its questions from the past. ‘anticipating the complete revision of origins.’ (4) Science fiction is therefore intrinsically linked to debates over human values and it is this, Csicsery-Ronay argues (sadly only briefly) that allows the genre we call science fiction to have so very many forms and modes, and to appropriate so very many story forms (8) because it’s real origins are not in science per se, but in this discursive nexus.

Csicsery-Ronay concludes the introduction with a discussion of his methods and texts. Of his method, Csicsery-Ronay is laudably eclectic. Although this is a book with a strong argument it is essentially a work of synthesis and Csicsery-Ronay has drawn on most of the names one would expect from both the academy and the work of the major reviewer-critics. Where I am not wholly convinced is in his selection of texts and his justification of those choices. On the matter of books, I accept his argument that he had to make selections, and also that in the end, the use of familiar texts enabled the reader to test his arguments. If I have one significant regret, it is that Csicsery-Ronay’s stated purpose, to bring together and elucidate current thinking about science fiction, has left little room for his own voice and his own arguments. Only in the chapter on the grotesque, where very little work directly on science fiction has been written, do we really get the opportunity to experience Csicsery-Ronay as an original thinker as well as a superb synthesizer. I am less comfortable with Csicsery-Ronay’s decision to stretch beyond literary texts. Csicsery-Ronay writes, ‘a study of science-fictionality should not restrict itself to one medium only’, a sentiment with which I am in accord. However he continues:


‘it is clear that the same critical approaches cannot be used unreflectively to study other media, such as film. The technical ways with which film conveys its meanings, and the cognitive and aesthetic engagements that inexorably attend cinematic perception, require that sf theory accommodate sf film’s overwhelming emphasis on perception at the expense of reflection. Such accommodation is vital, considering the increasing weight of sf film and television in establishing the dominant cultural conception of what sf is.’’ (11)


Yet, as we shall see, Csicsery-Ronay succeeds in incorporating movies successfully only in his chapters on the science-fiction sublime and the grotesque, and, within that, in his discussion on the visual forms. While I accept his arguments (and those of other critics) that sf cinema and games, among other forms, are becoming the dominant cultural conception of what sf is, their values are so different, or so skewed in a specific direction that it seems to me ‘accommodation’ is neither enough nor appropriate, that the tools applied to literary forms of science fiction can only leave the impression that the non-literary forms are inadequate, and that it is past time that the academic community withdrew from a theory of everything in this field, and acknowledge instead that there are separate and immensely valuable critical approaches which place cinema and gaming and graphic novels at the centre, and leave the literary beyond the Pale when viewed through their filters. The same, and more so, is true of Csicsery-Ronay’s most orphaned medium, music, for which he demands attention but is also forced to marginalise: the ‘vocabulary of sounds’ he identifies as part of sf or fantastical music is also here barely encompassed in the discussion of the sublime.

Seven Beauties can, I think, be read in any order, the chapters are inter-connected, but not inter-dependent. Of the chapters, I am most comfortable with chapters two through six, and least with chapters one and seven, both of which I feel are problematic in a number of ways, but for the sake of ease, I will take them in the order they are presented.

The first of Csicsery-Ronay’s beauties is the fictive neology, perhaps one of the most discussed aspects of science fiction. Csicsery-Ronay takes us through his understanding of their function and their development arguing that the desire for the fictive neology is a clue to the ideological structures of science fiction of which its neophilia is only one element but one which may or may not be crucial to our expectations of where and in which cultures sf may emerge. The argument is somewhat circular: the flexibility of the language and the willingness to accept neologisms is tied to the structures of scientific modernity in cultures which ‘employ many different kinds of lexicogenisis concurrently…. it is not an accident that theirs have also been the main languages of sf’ (19). It is also somewhat stacked: it does not explain how France is a culture of sf, yet has to adopt words from the Anglo-Saxon because its academy has demanded a rigidity of vocabulary, and it projects a rather orientalist view of Arabic and Persian as ‘constrained by a conservative loyalty to their classical stratum’ which ignores both local variation and the degree to which who gets there first often has far more influence over the language of a discipline or genre than does any innate quality (and is why Latin holds sway in biology and German in chemistry — see the examples of molecule names which almost all merge words as in German, even when the name is English). But this apart, Csicsery-Ronay does an excellent job of tracing the way in which technical neologisms emerge and are absorbed, often generating acceptance by following older rules of coinage (such as Greek and Roman names for planets) or as the twentieth century developed new modes of language dissemination, using popular memes. Csicsery-Ronay labels these neologisms democratic, in that these coinages borrow from popular rather than elite culture but they are different to semantic shifts in that they demand that there is a concept missing from the world, and in doing so — as he demonstrates with examples from Heinlein and Cadigan — they demand that the reader pay attention and be aware of the new world they are touring. Yet Csicsery-Ronay argues that there must be only enough neologisms to create the shift, and not so many that they paint the world entire: the reader must be able to infer much of the future, and in this context neologisms are the charcoal marks, not the painting entire.

The construction of neologisms can be of word variants, or radically new constructions; they can be bound morpheme constructions, free morphemic constructions or reduced morpheme constructions, that is totally made up, an old word given a new association, or a useful abbreviation (of which ftl may be the best known). Early sf favoured the bound morpheme, and Csicsery-Ronay easily traces a periodization in morpheme construction recognisable to any committed reader in the field. A great deal of modern sf uses the common codes embedded in reduced morphemes of the community and as Csicsery-Ronay much of this has penetrated into the technoscientific vocabulary that permeates the modern world.

The most important point that Csicsery-Ronay makes in the chapter is that neologisms reveal ideologies, and that this is particularly pertinent when understanding the neology in science fiction. Science fiction neologies, he argues, are ‘double coded’, both prospectively anachronistic and also chronoclastic (here I would also point to advertising neologisms and those in particular that spawn suffixes and prefixes, such as automat, which led to ‘-mat’ being the ending for many establishments, such as Laundromat, in[_ _]ways that we no longer recognise as modern and futuristic). Crucially, sf neologies must tell us something new about the world, and perhaps even more crucially the neologism creates this newness, this new sensibility.

The remaining sections of the chapter take a number of themes, and this over-riding issue of ideology encoded in the neologism, and seek to explore them through a variety of texts including Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ridley Walker, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and A Clockwork Orange among others. Csicsery-Ronay’s starting point is the role of linguistics in science fiction as an underpinning for the role of the neology, or rather its lack of a role. Csicsery-Ronay argues that ‘plausibility in linguistics has held no great attraction for sf writers’, a point I do not contest, and dismisses also Delany’s [_ Babel -17 ] (1966) and Jack Vance’s _The Languages of Pao (1958) before exploring what sf writers have done in the way of, for example, the powerful cultural appropriation of Dune or the gender games of The Left Hand of Darkness. There are a couple of odd elisions, Csicsery-Ronay seems to be unaware that the primacy of nouns and their role in child development is itself western/European (in Korean, verbs take precedence) and he ignores the compulsory heterosexuality encoded into Le Guin’s construction of kemmer and the language of kemmer while paying due attention to the ways in which Herbert hews close to western norms. The chapter ends with a consideration of Klingon, in a nod perhaps to non-literary media, but Ronay does not interrogate Klingon in the same fashion and although he argues that there are questions to be considered, he does not actually consider them. Instead, he shifts to a (still interesting) set of suggestions about the appeal of Klingon (over both real, and other invented languages) which brings the chapter back to where it began, without closing the circle.

I am very loathe to criticise someone’s choice of texts in a book of this kind. I understand that the texts selected in a book of this nature are selected for their utility, but when the issue at stake is the role of linguistics, and of the role of neologisms in constructing the ideology of the text, and one of the critical sections is on the absence of neologistic verbs in science fiction, then the absence of any discussion of Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue (acknowledged elsewhere in a discussion of feminist sf and later in a section on the feminine sublime) is very strange indeed. Native Tongue and its sequel The Judas Rose are precisely about linguists, linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf theory that language shapes and constrains what it is possible to think about, is written by a Professor of Linguistics, and contains many examples of neologistic verbs (as well as promoting an artificial language that actually exists). Its omission is a serious flaw in the chapter, and its marginalisation to a brief and disconnected discussion of feminism’s challenge to history in the next chapter, is problematic given what Csicsery-Ronay is arguing about language and ideology.

The second beauty of science fiction is the fictive novum. This is the densest chapter and the one which most draws on the body of criticism as part of the process of science fiction. Csicsery-Ronay moves us through Bloch and Suvin’s ideas of the novum and rests his arguments on Suvin’s understanding that the novum was not simply the new thing, but the new thing as ‘an indicator and a mediator of horizons of possibility’ (49) and one which calls attention to the present situation. From here Csicsery-Ronay invites the reader to consider the deliberately value-laden exploration of the novum, in which the novum is linked (by Suvin) to social change, but which the audience prizes because of its ludic qualities. Although newness is a theme picked up in the science fictional sublime, it is a crucial element here in the understanding of the value of the novum, and understanding it as a marker of historicity, possible only because we are aware of past, present and change.

Csicsery-Ronay guides us through novums material and ethical, in which material change may set the state for ethical discussion or vice versa, real world novums in which new perspectives bring new estrangements and both can be figured as novums, and crucially novums as themselves fictions, which are constructed by response. He explores Suvin’s argument for one novum and explains the degree to which this has been subverted in part b the difficulty of identifying the novum in a complex text, and demonstrates the challenges of this through a consideration of what he contends is the single novum text of Solaris and the multiple novum texts of cyberpunk whose propagandists, keen to erase the memory of the arguments for complexity of the social sf writers of the 1960s, would be taken a little too seriously here if Ronay had not chosen as his example of multiple novums the work of Philip K. Dick. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this chapter is the final one in which Csicsery-Ronay discusses the degree to which a novum may be irrational, as long as it is spun out in a rational manner, a hint at the sf is attitude argument that we will see in the discussion of the sublime and the grotesque.

Csicsery-Ronay’s third beauty is the future history, which he argues is one of the defining elements of science fiction: parallel histories and allohistories are the proof, in that in re-imagining history they demonstrate the degree to which history and historical theory underpin science fiction. Seven Beauties draws our attention to those critics such as Ballard and Stockwell, who understand the role of history in science fiction as diegetic and poetic. Historiography shapes the kinds of arguments about nature that the sf story encodes, and creates a language for that debate which, by being firmly in the present and in the past, anchors science fiction in the continuum of lived experience, even as it is a virtualisation of that experience. The focus of this chapter is to trace the different theories of history which have shaped science fiction, tracing the degree to which evolutionary historical theory (and the works of historians as far apart as Marx and Spengler) shaped not just the understanding of human progress but helped create a techno-evolution in which the inevitable rise of machines as assistants, supports, as the God we need to advance, is our destiny. In turn, Csicsery-Ronay then describes the counter-narratives, from the alternative world histories, through the post-modernist challenges of feminism and of writers with non-traditional (for sf) identities to produce what he calls, neatly, dispersive futures which are a response to the sense of crisis felt by many of those who understood the future within the notion of Destiny. This links Csicsery-Ronay to the fractured futures of time travel novels, which both undermine while simultaneously support the ur-narrative of inevitablity. Csicsery-Ronay’s final selection in this chapter is steam punk, an irreverent revisioning of Victorian history which argues for the primacy of techno-evolution even as it emphasises the artificiality of the future history project by understanding it through the playful gaze of genre.

With the exception of the last section, the chapter on the fourth beauty, Imaginary Science, is perhaps the least contentious as Csicsery-Ronay traces the ways in which sf moves very quickly from believing in genuine extrapolation from known science into the future, to a clear awareness from the 1950s onward that sf writers and readers are playing a game. Csicsery-Ronay situates this shift in a changing understanding of science itself which from the 1930s seems much less immutable than it once had. Physics and biology in particular was advancing by overturning previous conceptions ratter than elaborating on them,. This knowledge that scientific understanding might at any point be overturned rendered it legitimate to conceive of what such revolutions might look like (Csicsery-Ronay says not, because one cannot include ideas of killer tomatoes from outer space, but just because an idea is ludicrous, it does not mean that its legitimacy cannot stem from the same ideological position: this has been a problem for free speech advocates and relativists everywhere). An element in this carnival is that neither writers nor readers of sf are necessarily scientists: rather they are generalists with a scientific bent, educated enough to follow the logic but not the detail, and therefore potentially more susceptible to the blandishments of logical argument as a form, than might those with better or poorer educations. It is precisely the mid-way point that Csicsery-Ronay seems to argue (in a rare turn to audience studies) is the audience here. This he couples with what Tatiana Chernyshova, understood as a mode of myth making and Csicsery-Ronay calls ‘the imaginary supplement’, in which current knowledge is imposed on the unknown in order to construct a satisfactory but untrue explanation. This links in turn to the thought experiment, which may be crucial to science fiction, but here is presented as its vulnerable spot because while the thought experiment might be a form of argument, it is one in which the answer is known in advance and there is little opportunity for falsification (although it might be constructed in the dissatisfaction of the reader: see Joanna Russ on battle-of-the-sexes thought experiments). This is why he links the thought experiment to the literary hoax, seeing the accretion of detail around the hoax and the thought experiment as essentially the same modes of convincement, and making possible counter-factual science stories in which the science as presented is known to be untrue, either because it is conceived that way (as in science fantasy, and much space opera) or because it has dated). Only for that form of science fiction whose scientific content works with and inspires contemporary science (such as nano-science) does Csicsery-Ronay reserve the term science-fictional science. It is a narrow definition but is to an extent no more than a re-stating of the case for hard-sf, with the additional notion that these fictions help to create a romantic narrative for the technologies they propose and propagandise.

In the last section, on the cognition effect of science in science fiction, Csicsery-Ronay argues that sf thrives on maximum credible rationalization and expands this to assert that there is a level of ectstasy involved, a ludic transcendance as well as the ludic pleasure of playing with belief. My one caveat here is Csicsery-Ronay’s use of the Sokal hoax as a paradigm for sf: he argues that while Sokal seduced the cultural theorists, this has to be placed in the context of the business of science which has also attempted top use scientific language for political uses. In this he misses the point of what Sokal was trying to demonstrate. Science is self-correcting. Eventually other scientists in the same field point out the methodological flaws because until they do, progress is usually hampered by the incorrect theory — a cul-de-sac can lead only to a cul-de-sac. Sokal’s point was that the contributors to Social Texts had no such mechanism, that ludicrous theory could spawn more ludicrous theory ad infinitum, because there was no means of disproof. Ironically, while I disagree with Csicsery-Ronay’s understanding of the incident, my own leads me to the same conclusion, that to the degree sf has very strong diegetic tools (mostly in the form of a very argumentative community) it is vulnerable to overestimating the degree to which it can embrace scientific method.

In his discussion on the fifth beauty, Csicsery-Ronay takes us through Kant and Burke’s notions of the sublime, the role of monstrosity in the construction of the science fictional sublime in the ur-text, Frankenstein, and on to a summary of David Nye’s ideas about the American technological sublime in order to catch what he sees as a distinctive sf-nal understanding of the sublime. This is playful, and rests on imaginary objects as the focal point of the sublime, and those objects are mediated by science and tempered to a greater or lesser degree by the juxtaposition of the grotesque. Csicsery-Ronay sees this as a realistic discourse which reflects the technologically saturated environment with which sf competes. Given this outline and context, it is therefore not surprising that most of the examples in this chapter are from film, which has specialised in what we might call the visual sublime. Although the discussion of The Matrix means that this cannot be synonymous with the Big Dumb object, one cannot escape the emphasis on the visual here, which I think to be a great shame. There is no discussion of the composition of the sublime in opera and in sf film sound tracks and although Csicsery-Ronay quotes extensively from Tiptree’s Up the Walls of the World, he focuses on the thing being described and the inability of language to capture it, rather than on the techniques sf has developed to depict the sublime. The language used is sublime on the ear, not merely in the image it produces. It has strong connections to epic poetry. It is not just descriptive, it is evocative, this lack is an opportunity lost by perhaps the person in the field best equipped to take advantage.

The sixth beauty Csicsery-Ronay terms ‘the grotesque’ but he acknowledges might equally have been couched as carnival, ‘a matter of pleasure in corporeal existence, the rich and funky gaiety that sees life processes intimately flowing into one another, rejecting the abstract divisions and intellectual puritanism of the elites, and consequently threatening a nd shocking only to them.’’ (183) This is perhaps the most original chapter, the one in which Csicsery-Ronay stretches beyond the historiography of the genre. In asking us to see science fiction through a filter of revulsion and recoil, through response to anomalies, to the awareness of instability in the story of the world, Csicsery-Ronay refigures science fiction by focusing on the role of robots and monsters and out of control science, aspects of science fiction often pushed to the side by respectable critics. In this chapter Csicsery-Ronay Jr goes digging in the dark corners of sf, in the futuristic thriller, in the sci-fi schlock movie, and in the new borderland of sf and fantasy, the New Weird, where the grotesque runs rampant. The grotesque is intensely physical, the monster in Alien, the suppurating sores of a plague movie, the rotting flesh of the animated corpse. It is a version of the sublime and one whose history Csicsery-Ronay traces back through the chimera of Greek myth, through the idea of the cyborg, and into the alien, using as his primary examples Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and the Alien movies, demonstrating the ways in which the grotesque can be used to stretch and emphasise metaphor and psychological readings. The chapter concludes by positioning the grotesque as an entropic reaction against the scientific sublime’s desire for order, and one which places value on technologies and ideologies of transformation and hybridity and encourages edge readings, or as he suggests, queers the body of the text, encouraging fractured and fractal narratives and eliding the space between the post-modern literary text and the science fictional text.

In his final chapter, on ‘the Technologiade’, Csicsery-Ronay argues that while sf takes its plots from many different story oriented genres, what is distinctive is that it uses these plots to tell one of two stories, the expansive space opera, and the techno-Robinsonade, both of which relate ‘the epic struggle surrounding the transformation of the cosmos into a technological regime.’ (217). The conceptualization is a good one, and the discussion of space opera particularly effective. Space opera, Csicsery-Ronay contends, provides the stage on which all of the beauties hitherto displayed can be discussed. The section on the Robinsonade, however, I found less satisfying. The basic outline and the positioning of the Robinsonade as adventure story was clear, but then, for the first time, Csicsery-Ronay began to use archetypes and psychoanalytic criticism to reduce the cast of characters to components: the handy man, the fertile corpse (the scene of his performance, usually a land of some kind); the willing slave, the shadow mage (the antagonist to the project); the tool text (the set of devices and documents used by the handy man to achieve dominance); and the wife at home. Uncharacteristically, Csicsery-Ronay slides into the dogma: x represents y. This might be less jarring in another kind of book, but while the archetypes are recognizable, the interpretations offered are stretched and insistent, so that the Wife at Home, ‘represents rooted tradition’, ‘may well be literally fertile’, ‘She represents one half of the feminine in the modern adventure model, the other being the Fertile Corpse.’ (234). Csicsery-Ronay gives no examples in this section (again unusual in a book which otherwise is very careful to reference to specific texts) and the result is oddly old-fashioned. Not until much later in the chapter, after he has explored the historical development of the Robinsonade, and its successor, the Edisonade, does he return to the same topics, this time with examples, in which he does demonstrate the ubiquity of these archetypes but indicates also the degree to which the psychoanalytic interpretations offered are rather heavy-handed.

A major issue I have with this chapter is one which I found worrying throughout the book, and that is the relative absence of female writers referenced. Mostly, it has not mattered to the argument so I have bitten my tongue, although I have already pointed to the startling omission of Native Tongue in chapter 1 but am forced to add here that any discussion on the Robinsonade which does not consider Joanna Russ’s Who Are About To… is rather missing something. Furthermore, the relative absence of feminist writers in the longer discussions (I do not count Le Guin because the texts cited were written prior to her self-identification with feminism) enables Csicsery-Ronay to state baldly in this chapter of the trope of ‘The SF wife at home’: ‘The function of the Wife at Home becomes strikingly muted in sf, for clear cut reasons. There is not much home in sf.’ (255). This is simply not true, from “No Woman Born” by C. L. Moore (1944), through the feminist revisionings of the home in the early twentieth century (see the work of Batya Weinbaum), the housewife heroine sf of the 1950s (see Lisa Yaszek) and on to the feminists of the 1980s there is plenty of home in science fiction, and at least one popular culture futuristic trope, perhaps the one most non-sf readers were familiar with, was precisely ‘the home of the future’, the central locus for the 1950s technologiade which precisely stripped all participants of their ‘handy men’ function, and irony of technological advance which is not explored here. Ironically, I think that had this chapter been reconsidered more generally, and were the seventh beauty to be more generally described as ‘Interrogating the human’ or some such, many of the arguments in this chapter would have been more easily and deftly handled, and many of my own concerns addressed.

Csicsery-Ronay concludes The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction with a consideration of the Singularity as both a trope of sf, and a limit on the prediction for the place of sf. SF, he contends, survives because it continues to process the material of culture, and to contribute to the construction of our socio-political landscape, but if it cannot contain and express new needs, and new dreams, it may yet fall by the way side. This possibility and the prediction of this possibility, is inherent in the project itself.


This started out as an MLA conference paper, and I was delighted that Mike Levy agreed to take what is basically a think piece, for Extrapolation, vol. 50, No. 1, Spring, pp. 33-44. One of the reasons I wrote the paper was to explore in my own mind how play and dream could be effective in fantasy.



Now Let Us Put Away Childish Things”

Games, fantasy and the elided fantasy of childhood.


In the book I’ve recently completed, Rhetorics of Fantasy, I suggested that there is a form of the fantastic which depends on our acceptance of liminality, of a point of equipoise or irony in which the fantastic both does and doesn’t exist simultaneously, and which depends on that simultaneity to exist, a Schroedinger’s cat of fantasy if you will; attempt to come down on one side or the other, and the text collapses.

Although it is always dangerous to draw parallels between literary theory and human behaviour, for once I’m going to do just that. This notion of the liminal fantastic as moment and as comprised of tension and support between the fantastic and the mundane can work rather well as a metaphor for one way of understanding adolescence. It has drawn my attention to a small number of books that appear to be exploring this very thing, and in doing so twisting the way in which two elements of their books are written, specifically the writing of the “childhood narrative game” and the metaphorical uses of fantasy to explore the edges of childhood.

The “narrative game” is a practice familiar enough to most people that when in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Lucy returns with her tale, it is assumed that this is what she is playing. In children’s literature the “narrative game” has high status as a facilitating device, sometimes leading into adventure as with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (1930) or Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia (1977), sometimes into fantasy as in many of Edward Eager’s books. What all of these stories have in common is that they envisage a model of play that understands the primary and overwhelming purpose of play as the emulation or negotiation of future adult roles and adult relationships to the world — whether this is conformist as with Ransome’s children and their boating holiday (the children’s relatives are engaged by the merchant navy) or subversive and challenging, as with the two adolescents in Bridge to Terabithia who are keen to negotiate new and divergent pathways to adulthood. In each text, the games are actualising the negotiated pathway to adulthood and because this link is never relaxed, each of the narrative games must pass away, must be left behind both as something that is of childhood, and as something that encapsulates the meaning of childhood. In contrast the narrative games that become the full fantastic frequently present the acquisition of magic and the negotiation of magic as lever that moves the children firmly across the portal into adolescence and on to adulthood.

The three books I want to discuss are much more interested in the place of these narrative games, and simultaneously of adolescence, as liminal and deeply unnerving places which are not preparations for anything but themselves, and exist precisely in the space created by the pressure of both childhood left behind, and oncoming adulthood. They are moments rather than paths, or if they are paths they are into adolescence itself as a space, rather than adolescence as a way station to adulthood and this is true even when adulthood is the end place.

Diana Wynne Jones’ Time of the Ghost, Rhiannon Lassiter’s Bad Blood and Steve Cockayne’s The Good People each use the liminal quality of narrative games to manipulate the reader position with regard to both the fantastic and the nature of adolescence: rather than chart a clear path from childhood to adulthood they focus on the hazy complexity of adolescence and then re-figure this in ways which inform the structures of fantasy they then deploy.

I have clustered these texts as fantasies of elision: the common narrative goal is the construction of a perspective in which the porous nature of the real and the fantastic allow them to become inseparable for both reader and participant. But it is a goal rather than an achievement, and the process of the moving towards the goal is what it at stake. In these texts, we are supposed to consider the nature of reality, but there is an interaction between the uncertainties of adolescence and the elisions of reality and fantasy that create a structure “weird and wavy”.4 What I am interested in here is that moment of movement, not the starting point of childhood/the mundane, nor the end point of adulthood/full fantasy.



Of the three books I want to talk about, Time of the Ghost is the least obvious choice because it ends with four girls in adulthood and can be seen, therefore, as a rites of passage tale. The reason I’m going to suggest seeing the book instead as an argument for the moment of adolescence, is that its conclusion does not present the four women taking on the responsibilities of adulthood, but rather rejecting the pathways laid out for them by their well-meaning mother. However late this rejection occurs, it can be considered the essential adolescent moment. So the story might be read — and I offer such a reading here — as an argument for that adolescent moment, and for its importance and its power.

Diana Wynne Jones’s Time of the Ghost (1981) is a story of four sisters, who call into the world a goddess — the Monigan — and inadvertently give to the goddess power over their respective futures. The girls are the children of adults whom to the outside world would seem exemplary: head teachers of a boarding school, deeply caring of other people’s children, but inclined to think that their own children are “lucky” in comparison. In consequence the parents abandon their own children in a kind of bohemian neglect. The parents exist in a “narrated” world which is as much fantastical as is the world their daughters create: Phyllis (the mother) demonstrates her affection for her daughters by planning their futures. Phyllis tells herself about how well she knows her children and how central they are to her life, insisting that Imogen will become a pianist and Charlotte a teacher is part of the entire narrative that. For Phyllis, despite her Bohemianism, childhood is a rehearsal for adulthood. Part of the process of this novel is as much about the girls unhooking themselves from Phyllis’s controlling narrative as it is about defeating the Monigan and hence a process of challenging one model of childhood play. In fact it is only once they acknowledge the destructive role Phyllis has had in their lives, that they can register that the Monigan has simply usurped this role: the goddess to which the children once turned for liberation from parental expectation, actually poses the same fundamental threat, that she will fix their future.

The Time of the Ghost is a double narrative. The narrator lies in a hospital bed in the present, gravely ill, but finds herself thrown back into a past in which she observes three of the four sisters at a very specific moment in time, just before their parents become so angry with them that they are sent away from the school. The trajectory of the book moves back and forth across time but is focussed on locating and exploring a very specific moment: a moment at which the mundane and the marvelous may have come together to create the pathway to the present.

The sisters respond to parental neglect with a pattern of outrageous behaviour intended to attract attention (it mostly fails). Like many lonely children and also children in large families,5 the girls generate a conspiratorial game with two of the boys in the school. With very little power or autonomy (despite their neglect) the sisters set up an altar and turn an old rag doll into a god-figure. They and their friends bring it gifts, create a book of worship and inadvertently either create a god, or channel an old god into the doll. But the Monigan is powered by misery, misunderstanding and the desire to escape so that the more the sisters try to pull away from her later in life, the more embedded she is in their individual narratives.

The status of the game is held in tension throughout the book: the girls both know it is a game, and believe fiercely that it is not. At some moments they play, and at other moments they take it deadly seriously, a fair reflection I feel of the structure of adolescent concern. The Monigan exploits this ambivalence, using it to trick them into promises and sacrifices that they take lightly. The “plot” of the novel revolves around one such promise — a life seven years hence — which has landed Sally, one of the older sisters, in hospital after an appalling car crash. Sally (the ghost) finds herself both seven years in the future stranded in a hospital bed and also a ghost in the past, watching everything unfold but unclear as to which of the children she is. One of the tricks that Jones pulls however is to begin in the past with a very clear sense of it as “the present”. One of the ways that the Monigan will be tricked is through an intensity of belief in time, all times are “now” but the past cannot be changed, only the present. The game is interwoven with a doubling of time in which the ghost tales action from her hospital bed in what we understand as the past. In this sense The Time of the Ghost is a liminal game, full of moments at which the girls acknowledge the illusion, punctuated with other moments of intensity of belief. It is one of these moments of intensity that the ghost will eventually manipulate in order to save herself.

What Jones seems to be arguing both through the manipulations of the Monigan and the attempted “friendly” coercion of the girls’ mother is that it is a mistake to think of adolescence as a route, to think of any part of life as a stage. By doing so, we render ourselves vulnerable to a belief that somehow the now is never real. Instead, Jones suggests, childhood, adolescence, adulthood stay forever with us, they are the potential we always are, the people we left behind. Although the book does end with an apparent “leaving behind” when Imogen rejects the career her mother foisted upon her this is better read as a recovery of her true self and adolescence, a ripping away of an imposed identity than as a change in character. In The Time of the Ghost — personified in Charlotte, whose rather blurry looks have resolved into very definite beauty — the process of growing up seems to be less a departure, than a resolution into focus.

Childhood and adolescence in Time of the Ghost is neither a specific moment nor a passing phase. I’ve talked elsewhere about Jones’s narrative use of time travel physics and this is one of the texts in which a specific conceptualisation of time travel — that all times are everywhere around us — is used to contextualise an understanding that we are all the ages we have ever been and will be. This in turn means that one does not have to stop believing in the game to grow up, rather that one’s belief in how the game works, and crucially perhaps, who is in control of the game, is part of an on-going negotiation with adulthood. This concept is also central to the structure of Rhiannon Lassiter’s Bad Blood.



Although in Bad Blood the game creates a traumatic rupture with childhood, there is an unlikely synthesis with the idea of “the game” as an on-going part of one’s adulthood. Bad Blood begins with the tale of a blended family with two sets of chidren: Roland and Catriona, and Katherine and John. Many second families have problems, but the four children get off to an explosive start when Catriona and Katherine discover that both of them are using the nickname Cat. Catriona — the more dominant and dramatic as well as the elder of the two — appropriates the name. Poor Katherine can’t even persuade her own father to continue using it.

Lurking in the background of the story is the fate of Katherine and John’s mother Anne. A country girl, happy and intelligent, she fell victim to Alzheimer’s in her early thirties: Katherine is recovering both from the trauma of those years and the pressure and pleasures of being the woman of the house. Katherine is not wholly pleased by the acquisition of a stepmother and her own relegation to child-to-be-looked-after. Of the children only Roland and John take any pleasure in the new arrangements: Roland rather likes being a big brother and uses his new feelings to try to efface “Roly”, the rather unassertive person he has been. In turn, John unequivocally likes and admires his new older brother.

Although the parents, Peter and Harriet, are quite unlike Jones’s parents being concerned and attentive, they do resemble them in their desire to impose a comforting narrative upon reality. Peter just wants peace and quiet and copes mostly by ignoring the dramatics and comforting Katherine every time Catriona rides roughshod over her — not once does he stand up for his daughter. Harriet on the other hand actively tries to improve matters, but does so by dismissing the issue of names as trivial, and insisting that there is wrong on both sides. Harriet’s insistence on being fair, combined with a belief that if they all tried harder things would work out, become a “story” in which every actor is expected to play his part (and it is unfortunate that her own “mother” narrative disempowers Katherine). This matters because the game the four protagonists get involved with has pre-destined parts for each of them, and just as Harriet misunderstands the roles (and hence the personalities) of the players in her family drama, so each of the adolescents (and it is significant that John is not yet an adolescent) misunderstand their role and to an extent, even their own personalities.

All four of the children are taken to Katherine and John’s mother’s old home, a large manor house isolated on the edge of a village: Harriet’s idea is that this will be a family bonding exercise, but Catriona’s discovery of Delilah, a doll with long hair that seems to be both real and from a number of different donors, triggers an old story and a haunting.

Katherine and Catriona are both seduced (in the emotional sense) by Fox, an enigmatic character who appears at the edge of the wood. Fox, it emerges, is a character in a set of stories created by three girls who once all lived in the village: Anne, Katherine’s mother and her two friends, Emily and Charlotte who are now the parents of the girl Alice with whom Roland becomes friends (and hopes to become more).

Not unlike the game in The Time of the Ghost, the game that Katherine and Catriona in particular are drawn in to, turns out to be a game of sacrifices, and pagan goddesses. Anne, Emily and Charlotte (who themselves drew on the power of their own names and namesakes) had created a fantastical world, which they have powered through sympathetic magic: names from books are ritualistically scored out, obliterating them from the book and also — as the three players later discovered — from their minds. Anne’s illness may have been caused by the game, as we also learn that Emily lost the knowledge of the literature she had loved. The haunting focuses on Catriona (who found the doll, Delilah) but it is Catriona’s reaction that draws in Katherine, Roland and John who meanwhile have discovered what at first appear to be more benign versions of the game. Catriona is spiteful and manipulative in ways which are reflective of Delilah’s powers: when “teased” by Delilah’s presence — the doll cannot be thrown away — she turns ever more viciously on Katherine. When a final row sends both Cats into the night, the game takes advantage of their blind distress and traps them into sacrificing each others’ names. In doing so, each girl is turned into a small cat, one tabby, one tortoiseshell. Fox turns out not to be a friend, but a priest of the game.

Catriona and Katherine will eventually be rescued but not each has discovered the decent side of their respective step-parent, and also until Roland too has become embroiled in the game, and with him Alice, the daughter of Emily and Charlotte. It is Alice who turns out to be the focus of the game, the four “protagonists” only bit players. Alice is the daughter of Fox (it is unclear if his encounter with Emily was consensual or rape) and it is Alice who Fox wishes to protect. The two Cats are his sacrifice.

Significantly (I think) while Roland is able to rescue himself (of which more in a minute), it is John who rescues the two Cats and restores them to human form. Although Alice and Roland both feel John to be unusually wise and oddly adult, John is the only true child: in the book he has yet to experience the confusions of adolescence. Unusually, this seems to allow him to hold apart from the game in a way in which none of the other four can. This game is very tightly tied precisely to the turmoil of puberty and specifically the conviction of adolescence that one is the centre of the universe. To move out of the game, these teenagers must move beyond that point, but also return to the lessons of childhood.

Throughout the book the fantastic remains at arms length. The game as it is played was invented by a very different set of people than the ones whose tale it is: the game is a wild-wood, fey fantasy but our protagonists are and remain trespassers, it is not their game and until John “inherits” its keys they are essentially trapped within someone else’s rules. With the exception of John — who is not yet adolescent — none of the protagonists ever really comes close to the fantastic as anything other than victims. Alice does come to realise that she is tied tighter to the story than she might wish, but she too remains essentially separate. None of the teens become magic users, but are each wielded by Fox or John as tools in the game. This is highly unusual in a children’s/YA fantasy where the acquisition of power and agency frequently run as a parallel purpose in the fantastic and mundane elements of the novel. In this game there seems to be no power to either acquire or relinquish, and while those who pass through have clearly become more adult, there is no “token of adulthood” for them to collect or display. Yet one of the strangest aspects of this book is the disorientation felt when we begin to read the first conversations of “Erin” and “Iona”. It is truly as if we are reading new people. These are not Katherine and Catriona. Their voices have changed, and they seem to be several years older.

At the end of the game and the book all four children in the family will have had to change their names in order to escape the game. The game owns things and people through referents, so the only way to freedom is to change the referent, and as referents contain meaning, to change the meaning of that which is referred to. This is presented as deeply traumatic, with the implication that it is traumatic because it represents a much more severe break with childhood than is somehow right and proper. The least severe trauma is that of Roly, who expands himself throughout the book, slowly seeking to reclaim the emotional space in the family which has been colonised by Catriona. Thus it is the shortened form of his name, Roly which he discards, and with it his diffidence and self-loathing. Roland’s route to adulthood is a stretching. The two girls (in cat shape) have to be named by John for they cannot name themselves, but here John digs their new names out from their old, and in doing so transforms them: KathERIN becomes Erin. CatrIONA becomes Iona.

This decision to change names cements a belief in the game that has mostly remained ambiguous until quite late (when the girls are turned into cats): adolesence becomes entwined with an acceptance of the fantastic, rather than an abandonment of such, and with a relinquishment of identity rather than the claiming of it per se. This is a story about living as adolescents. Although there is a passing through, it is not into adulthood but further into adolescence.



The book that got me thinking about all of this, and how the fantastic can represent adolescence, is Steve Cockayne’s The Good People (2006). The Good People begins as an Arthur Ransome-ish story about two boys living in a country house, playing games in the woods on the edge of their garden. Robert, the sensible, practical one, is the elder. Kenneth is dreamier and there is some talk of his delicacy and his tendency to nervousness. By the start of the book he is already evading school and will eventually drop out. Robert and Kenneth’s father owns one of the local factories, and their mother was an actress who may have a history of mental instability. She has “good days” and “bad days”, and much of their care falls to their maternal grandmother.

Each day the two boys set off into the forest (and who calls the place a forest, and who calls it a wood is highly indicative of their relationship to the fantastic) and into Arboria, a world of Arborians and Barbarians perpetually at war over the bridge and the lake. In Arboria Robert is the High Lord and Kenneth the Keeper of the Lore. From the House in the Air (a treehouse suspended by ropes) they keep watch on the doings of Arboria and plan campaigns.

Our very first impression of Arboria is of a game: “It was my brother Robert who first showed me how to get into Arboria. All you had to do was to step through the garden gate.” (8/9) Our second impression, in the very next line, is something else:

‘Good morning, Master Kenneth! Lovely morning, don’t you think?’ It was the thin, husky voice of Tommy Pelling. My first job when I arrived in Arboria was always to say hello to Tommy. Tommy was in charge of the log store, and the log-store stood just on the other side of the garden gate, on the left-hand side against the wall…. The inside of the log store was Tommy’s private domain, and neither Robert nor I would have dreamed of venturing inside without an invitation.” (9)

Furthermore, Tommy is described in intense detail: “Tommy himself was a small, slight creature with thin, wispy hair and very large ears. His clothes were ragged and worn, and his toes peeped out through gaping cracks in his large, flat feet. It would have been very hard to say how old he was. He was one of those people who always seem to have been the same age.” (9) so it is a shock when later we discover that Robert can’t see Tommy. Is Tommy a fantasy? But Robert seems to value what Tommy says. And there is never any suggestion that the bows and arrows they carry are mere fancy. Is this a game or full other-world fantasy? The water is muddied further when both Robert and Kenneth see Barbarians lurking by the other side of the lake. 

“Up until that day, Robert had always been the leader in our Arborian adventures. Robert had been the one who worked out the plans, Robert had been the one who made the decisions. I, on the other hand, had been the one blessed with the power of imagination. I had been the one who heard voices, I had had been the one who saw things, I had been the one who knew what sort of clothes the Aborians and the Barbarians wore, what sort of weapons they carried.” (26)

Is this a boy writing about what he makes up — “the power of imagination”? Cockayne is very careful to leave it ambiguous whenever Kenneth instructs Robert (and later the evacuee girl Janny) on the lore and geography of Arboria as to whether he is making it up, or drawing from his memory. Kenneth is brought up mostly by his grandmother and “I would listen entranced to everything she had to tell me. I didn’t learn anything about exothermic reactions or irregular verbs… but I heard a lot of stories about Lower Helsing and Upper Helsing, about the Saxons who used to farm there, and about the Romans who built the Tollcester Road…”(51). He also reads a great deal of fantasy including, by implication, Carroll, MacDonald, Nesbit and Barrie. But Kenneth understands these books as factual. “It seemed that other children, too, had their own secret, magical places” (53), and he records his narrative of Aboria in terms that imbue the ordinary with a mystique. “Within the cold walls of Hedley House, Janny remained a sickly creature…. Passing through the garden gate, though, into the brighter, sharper air of Aboria. Janny seemed at once to be transformed into a different being… In the forest of, Janny blossomed.” (62-3)

As the book progresses, we realise that if there is a truly fantastical world, different members of the family are immersed in it — in a quite literal fashion — to different degrees. For Robert Arboria is always on the edge of a game, only occasionally does he truly see Arboria. Kenneth and Kenneth’s Grandmother (as we shall see) are the two most fully immersed in Arboria, but it is Janny who thickens the game in the reader’s mind. One night Janny wakes Kenneth and asks him to go down to the forest: there, they are witness to Lord Owen and Lady Margaret of the Good People, and the wild dance of the Good People. Janny joins in, but Kenneth cannot bring himself to. But the crucial moment in this scene is the moment at which Tommy greets them, and Janny realises that she can see him, and that he is real. It is also the moment at which it is easiest to lose sight of the fact that this is Kenneth’s narration. Later, when Kenneth is sucked into the world of the Good People and lies in a coma in his house, he will record that people are baffled by the clay and dust on his feet. Once more this will seem like corroborative evidence, but once more we need to keep in mind that we have neither supporting nor contrary voice.

The visit to the Good People is repeated rather later in the book, but this time Kenneth is ready to dance, and to do more with Janny, for Janny, moving into adolescence, is a disruptive force in the imaginary/fantastical world of Aboria. And here is where it becomes complicated because Janny’s relationship with Arboria is not severed by adolesence but rather mutates as she becomes involved with Davy Hearn — who figures both as gardener’s boy, and representative of all the gardener’s boys there have ever been in Arboria — and through this relationship is reconfigured within the world of Arboria.

But we need to take a step back: the game seems to be very old, it has belonged to the children of Hedley House for generations, and while we need to be cautious when we assume Kenneth to be a reliable narrator, he claims to have been gifted by his grandmother with a chronicle of Arboria, a scroll going back so far that its earliest sections are written on hide, and its very earliest in runes. Grandmother’s complicity in the “game” is vital to Kenneth’s and our understanding. Cockayne has constructed this elided fantasy by keeping the focus resolutely on Kenneth and Kenneth is curiously uncurious. Kenneth lives in a world of the literal, and this coincides with his grandmother’s aphoristic literalism to create a world imbued with meaning. Grandmother draws Janny into this: several conversations she has with Janny are reported to Kenneth obliquely, heightening the mystery of Aboria rather than using the authority of adulthood to dispel it.

At times the relation of the other children to Arboria shifts, but because Cockayne is focused resolutely on Kenneth, and Kenneth’s narrative filters events through his increasing belief in the reality of Arboria, the reader is taken ever further into the fantastic even as doubt piles up around us. This is difficult to describe: there is no one moment when Kenneth shifts from an awareness that his imagination is doing the work to actual belief in the existence of the fantasyland. Instead, it is that Kenneth moves deeper into the mystery in much the way that committed role players do so that to an outsider the role player who may or may not believe in the reality of the game, speaks of it in ways which convince the observer that they do. There are several key moments in the novel which focus on this disturbing position. All of them involve Janny and Kenneth and all of them also involve the heightened tension of adolescence, filtered through Kenneth’s lack of understanding. Deprived of both parents and with his older brother away from home, Kenneth is left to deal with his response to Janny on his own. Without practical guidance, Kenneth weaves his visceral responses into the myths of Aboria, an “almost” consummation with Janny takes place at a height of a mystical frenzy, and is configured by Kenneth as an epiphanic moment. But this moment is interrupted by older brother Robert, and while Janny is thrust outward, away from Kenneth and on to an adult relationship with Davy Hearn (who as well as being the gardener’s boy may also be a pagan spirit), Kenneth is thrust back to the cusp of adolescence; childhood is no longer an option — as his grandmother fades Kenneth becomes more carer than cared for — but no one offers him a pathway through the hedge which surrounds Arboria and he stays, continuing to “play the game” for the rest of his life as the house crumbles and Robert makes his life elsewhere.

At the last, the liminal moment is held for a lifetime, adolescence becomes not a road passed along, but a hilltop from which the rest of the world is scanned, and the fantastic far from thinning, becomes increasingly dense.

Arboria exists in a permeable parallel to this Kenneth’s primary world. This clear positioning of Kenneth serves as a tool to reconsider both Bad Blood and Time of the Ghost because both Jones and Lassiter construct similar situations in which the fantastic and the real lie along side one another but protagonists never quite move fully into the fantastic and the fantastic never quite moves fully into the real. As I’ve already suggested, this leaves the fantastic slightly “out of grasp” but it also says something about childhood, adolescence and adulthood.




The fantastic in each of these three books takes an odd position off to one side of the stage: in none of the books is the fantasy wholly metaphorical or symbolic, but in each case the engagement with the fantastic is part of a larger element, which emphases the porous nature of both the real and the fantastic. In Cockayne’s book, only those who completely abandon the fantastic will make it into full adulthood, yet remaining in childhood and the fantastic is not an option. Kenneth gets stuck in the in-between place. So too do the sisters in The Time of the Ghost but it is the embrace of a genuine adolescence that frees them. The end of the book, in which the girls’ mother arrives at the hospital seems like a throwaway, but it is actually a moment of resolution in which the sisters shift their understanding of where and what the real world is: in Time of the Ghost the fantasy game remains real because it must be rejected to make the next step, pretending it is not real holds Sally back. Finally, Bad Blood offers in place of a sense of loss, or departure from childhood or adolescence, a process of re-evaluation in which the “childish things” of parental comfort and family structures remain an essential element of the world.



Works Cited

Cockayne, Steve. The Good People. London: Atom, 2006.

Jones, Diana Wynne. Time of the Ghost. Basingstoke: PanMacMillan, 1981.

Lassiter, Rhiannon. Bad Blood. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Mortal Love is one of my very favourite fantasy novels. This review was published by the New York Review of Science Fiction in 2005. Writing this piece influenced my ideas in Rhetorics of Fantasy and also led me to pay far more attention to the language of the fantastic more generally.



Mortal Love, by Elizabeth Hand




I find it impossible to review Elizabeth Hand’s most recent novel, Mortal Love, without considering it within the rhetorical climbing frames of fantasy which I have been constructing in my mind (and for Wesleyan University Press) for the past two years. Elizabeth Hand’s fiction is slippery. While it arouses in the back brain hints of John Crowley, scents of M. John Harrison, it is essentially itself. It has developed certain characteristics: its protagonists are outsiders who remain outsiders and are punished for the ineluctable fact of their outsiderness. Hand-fiction is told as a cracked monosemy in which the truth is always in tomorrow and all we poor mortals can hope for is the unilluminating glow of mirror light. Hand-fiction acknowledges the possibility of instauration but says, repeatedly, that it is not for us, that we are what will be swept away. We are not at the centre of the tale told.

Daniel Rowlands is in London to write a book on love. Radborne Comstock, one hundred years earlier, is there to paint. Both meet and are inspired by a mysterious woman. Daniel will become a novelist, Comstock a painter of fairy pictures.

Mortal Love is an intrusion novel: Faerie breaks into the world, touches the human and destroys or distorts it. Intrusion fantasy at its most classic is intensely racist: it assumes that we (a we that is so often white and western) are utterly fascinating to the supernatural world. This is why so much intrusion fantasy (I am uneasy with the separating out of the “supernatural”) reads so easily as metaphors for race: it is not simply that the intruder is the other, but that the other, like all the colonised, is out of place when it migrates to our country. That it does so is necessary to the rhetoric of superiority of the coloniser. England (not the UK) is and must be fascinating to the Indian. That fascination is as right as is the English repulsion of the immigrant/the hero’s repulsion of the supernatural intruder. We take this algebraic dance for granted.

Mortal Love both accepts this mathematics and delves deeper into its consequences. Faerie is fascinated with human. Human does have something — art, music,creativity — which Faerie does not. But Faerie is both the flame and the moth. It flutters around the human and is worn through by it, while the human to which it is drawn is fatally scorched. And intrusion fantasy may only be quest fantasy told from the point of view of the intruder. Think of the devastation questors leave behind.

The intruder in Elizabeth Hand’s Mortal Love is both trapped by this idea and post-colonial; her fascination with humans does not make it human Story. She does not realise she should be grateful, does not realise that she should try to fit in, that she should accept the rules of the world into which she has broken. In her refusal to be negotiated with, she ruptures the consensus that structures the intrusion fantasy. Larkin the intruder does not even recognise that this is what she is. Like all protagonists in quest fantasies, from her position we are the Orientals, our landscape unrolls before her, we are the walk ons whose lives she can destroy in one of her many “adventures”. There are no consequences for her because she is onto the next fixed liminal/red jersey in the quest.

So that Mortal Love can also be seen as a quest fantasy narrated by those who have the misfortune to be on the route of the pilgrim partyTM (Diana Wynne Jones). Yet even seen from this standpoint, the human participants are outsiders. Each of the “main” characters, Daniel, Radborne Comstock, Valentine Comstock, are Americans in London, stepping into a space they do not know but hope to own as the locus of their adventure. But in the story of Lot, the strangers who come to his door are in danger from the citizens of Sodom because they are foreigners. Anything can be done to foreigners whether they be foreign for their accent, their sexuality or their counter-cultural behaviour, society affords them less protection: if they are raped the police are slow to act, if they go missing it may take months for anyone to report it, if a sacrifice is needed, why waste one of your own when there is a stranger in your midst who has no ties, who can be lifted from your world without anyone caring, or in the case of one character, leaving behind only a sigh of relief that a disturbance has been contained.

Daniel, an American in twenty-first century London, hangs out in a Camden flat while he plays at writing a book on high romance; Radborne Comstock an American medical student wants to be an Artist and finds himself first among the Bohemian, spiritualist set in nineteenth century London — themselves embarrassing rich velvet outsiders in the serge and starch world of Victorian Britain — and then serving as a companion to Dr. Thomas Learmont, the owner of a lunatic asylum who has chosen to “specialize” in artists. To each comes a young woman, to Daniel, Larkin Meade, hippy, professional muse and mental patient: tall, columnar, with dark red hair and a visage that seems both ineluctably female and yet at the same time masculine. Radborne Comstock meets Evienne Upstone, the only lady patient of Russell Learmont at his asylum in Cornwall. Here the hair is fairer, the visage more feminine, but the madness less camouflaged than is Larkin’s in the wild environs of Camden Town.

Mortal Love is a surprisingly structuralist book. Its vivid characters, striking scenery and complex language are draped over a rigid pattern of archetypes worked into myth, legend and the every day: it manipulates tropes of intrusion and repulsion, of love and betrayal, anger and loss. The relationship between madness and art, Faerie and human, of how one knows which is which, of the patterns which shape these relationships, is made story. It is cut into the red woollen coat with its crystal buttons clothes which clothes those who attract the eye of Faerie.

Both protagonists are Americans, they too are “intrusions”. Suddenly Mortal Love begins to look like a bain-marie. The world Larkin disrupts is a world which has been constructed in each case by people who don’t belong, who themselves are potential disrupters, both of whom are on (personal) quests and cannot avoid the tendency of the tourist to see the people around them as walk ons in their world, or freaks in the fairway. Daniel is the most extreme version of this: he is in London to research, but he is also in London because he is convinced that its exoticism will inspire. When he walks through Camden with Larkin, he sees generative acts, not people. A young girl who calls out to Larkin, a young boy who threatens suicide, all these are for Daniel indicators of a strange and exotic (find different word) world. And it is this which destabilises the usual rhetoric of the intrusion fantasy. Daniel does not, cannot recognise Larkin as an intruder because it would force him to recoognise that he is also, and like portal-quest heroes everywhere, his own identity as questor fixes himself as the real; the Land through which he moves (in this case London) can never be allowed to become real. The result is that he and Larkin become the only real figures in the landscape: Nick and Sira who should be real, retreat in Daniel’s mind, become only facilitators or obstacles to his desires. Although Daniel reacts to Larkin with awe, the rhetoric with which he discusses her is carefully chosen to normalise her. There is none of the shock, the repulsion, the surprise, the constant emphasis on newness in his description of her. That she disrupts, we see in his behaviour, not in his language. In essence, Daniel narrates his own story as if it is a quest fantasy, while we read it as an intrusion, and Larkin wanders through unaware that she is supposed to be interested in us as people, rather than as scenery or locals from whom she collects interesting trinkets. Daniel is living in the wrong rhetorical mode.

But what of Comstock, Daniel’s nineteenth century counterpart? He is less confident than Daniel, less sure that it is his adventure that is being narrated. He is, in his diffidence, one of nature’s sidekicks, awed by the possibility of working for Jacobus Candell, painter of fairy pictures, eater of eggs and a madman. Here Hand uses a different technique. Where Daniel was too convinced of his own centrality to the narrative to accept that he was in a different kind of fantasy, to express the proper niaivete towards Larkin, Comstock responds to everything in this way. Although desperate to travel in another land, he has brought America with him, so that every encounter is as if a supernatural intrusion. Lady Wilde’s comments on the Muse come to sound like a sybilline prophecy. The cryptic comments of Swinburne baffle and threaten. Evienne Upstone becomes yet one more intrusion, and he reacts by flattening her effect. One monster becomes many monsters becomes, a world that is normal in its monstrosity. The heightened emotional force of the intrusion novel is suspended in turpentine bafflement.

Across the Atlantic is one more character, Valentine Comstock illegitimate grandson of Radborne Comstock and a foundling child. Pretty much abandoned by his older brother, brought up by Red, himself rather mysterious, Val sees green light from one of his grandfather’s paintings and turns to drawing and the creation of a world and a myth cycle. When his work is found and laughed at by his older brother, in a rage he attacks and spends the next fifteen years drugged to control bi-polar mania. When he is asked to take one of the last Comstock’s to the collector, Russell T. Learmont, possible descendant of Evienne Upstone’s doctor, he chucks his medication out of the window and allows the real world back in. Valentine Comstock is the found object at the heart of the tale. Himself haunted by moments of recognition, his purpose is to be recognized.

The boundary between the real world and the unreal is fragile in Mortal Love. At times, it becomes confused in the differences between England and America, between the wild of the urban and the equally wild, but very different spaces of the rural. People seek out the unreal in folk halls and museums, but always there is the sense that the unreal hovers around them, waiting to break through.

This was written to promote the then forthcoming Inter-Galactic Playground. The editor in chief, Roger Sutton asked for it as a result of long running discussions on the mailing list child_lit about didacticism. I’ve put it here because it is often requested.



The Campaign for Shiny Futures

The Horn Book

(March/April 2009)



When Roger Sutton asked me why science fiction for teens did not get the same attention or respect as fantasy, I wanted to throw up my hands and say, “Because it’s written by the ignorant, published by the ignorant, and reviewed by the ignorant — present company included.”

Here’s why. The notion that SF for the young does not receive respect forces us to ask three questions: Not respected by whom? What do we mean by SF for the young? And was it always this way?

For almost any science fiction reader over forty, science fiction “for the young” means Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton. There are others, but these two are the gold standard. Norton began her career writing mainstream adventure for boys (which is why she changed her name), then continued with a long line of juvenile adventure science fiction through the 1960s aimed mainly at boys, along with her classic Witch World sequence, which became very popular among second-wave feminists as well as kids. Heinlein began as a short story writer for magazines and was offered contracts for his juveniles or “family books” by Scribner’s on the basis of short stories in The Saturday Evening Post (family reading is a category that has disappeared but needs to be re-examined), and in the 1960s and 1970s gave those up and switched to novels for the expanding adult paperback market. In their juveniles, both writers used the trajectory of the career book: the protagonist would leave home, enter the workplace (sometimes an actual workplace, sometimes a new society), and acquire the skills to survive and prosper. There was very little romance, and, in Heinlein’s books, while marriage might be flagged for the future, clever girls mostly went off to be clever.

Heinlein and Norton remain respected by anyone in the SF field who actually knows its history. Unfortunately, the number of people in children’s literature who know anything about science fiction is tiny. I think I know all of them. Which explains a truly awful incident when, as a student, I couldn’t suppress my shock when the Esteemed Academic teaching a short course on children’s SF had not heard of Heinlein and Norton. In children’s literature, this kind of ignorance is taken for granted and accepted: where other genres receive specialist reviews, SF for children is frequently reviewed by non-specialists who assume that they can use much the same criteria as they might for a teen romance. This has very real consequences: whenever I point out that a so-called work of children’s or YA science fiction is a terrible piece of science fiction, I receive the unthinking putdown (and it is a putdown): “Oh, but kids like it!” By which they mean: kids who read like me. Kids who don’t like science fiction.

One of the ideas that Roger mentioned, and which many of us in SF have noted, is that science fiction readers read “up” and disdain kids’ books. Roger wrote, “Mary K. Chelton, co-founder of VOYA — our YA librarians magazine — told me many years ago that SF attracted the brainiest kids, who tended to read adult books anyway.” This has not always been true. Between 1950 and 1970, the books that were written and published as science fiction for children and young adults attracted those who would go on to read adult science fiction: authors such as Ben Bova, John Christopher, and Pamela Sargent turned readers of juvenile SF into readers of adult SF. (Furthermore, like their counterparts in fantasy, these books continued to be read and enjoyed by adult SF readers.) So why did this stop being true during the 1980s and 1990s, when SF for children and teens became less and less popular among SF readers? Why did Chelton observe that moving on to adult science fiction meant leaving SF for children behind? Could it be that there was something wrong with the books that were being marketed as SF for children?

Most of the writers of science fiction for children and teens before about 1970 also wrote for the adult market. In their fiction for younger people, Heinlein, Norton, and their contemporaries wrote with an eye on concerns very similar to those found in adult science fiction: the world of work, the world of changing technology, and the bright new opportunities promised by these things. They could do this for two reasons. First, the world of teens was much closer to the world of adults than it is today. Norton and Heinlein’s audience was either already earning their own living or would be a few years in the future. Now the fifteen-year-old reader might be a decade away from the professional workplace. Second, Heinlein and Norton shared the values of the adult SF market and assumed that their role was to introduce younger readers to that material. They loved what teen SF readers loved: the bright shiny promises of the future.

For The Inter-Galactic Playground, my forthcoming book about children’s reading and science fiction, I’ve read around four hundred books published for child and teen readers between 1950 and today. From 1970 onward, SF books aimed at the children’s and teen market were increasingly written by “writers for children” who did not also write for the adult field. Their books became increasingly concerned with those kinds of issues associated with the new YA subgenre, a genre with very different values from the old juvenile SF. The passage from juvenile science fiction to YA was not seamless: YA was not simply a fashionable new category, it described a different ideology of teenagehood and the teenage reader. In the new YA novels, adulthood as defined by the world of work was replaced by adulthood defined by the world of relationships. And perhaps because of YA literature’s preoccupation with social problems, science fiction for teens became increasingly a place for adults to warn the young about the future. At first glance this might be seen as introducing a healthy skepticism, but it was relentless. Very few SF books published for the teen market since 1970 saw the future as something to look forward to, and the downbeat books are not merely skeptical, they are downright doom-mongering and disempowering. (Saci Lloyd’s new The Carbon Diaries 2015 is a good example: the fascinating tale of the protagonist’s contributing to political change through the reduction of her own carbon use is replaced partway through with a catastrophic flood she can do nothing about — not a lot of point in saving that carbon, then.)

As Perry Nodelman noted in an article in Science-Fiction Studies 12 (1985), instead of an attitude that basically said, “Whee, kids! Look at all this bright shiny new New!” young readers were taught that innovation, new technology platforms, genetic engineering, and birth control would all rot their minds, sap their human spirit, and turn them into soulless and uncaring vegetables. Consider M. T. Anderson’s Feed, a book that is beautifully written and offers a brilliantly visualized future but clearly regrets the day we all stopped learning The Odyssey by heart and began writing things down, where they could be looked up by the ignorant. Or all the many books that argue that the solution to current crises is to retreat to pastoralism and spirituality.

So we have a bunch of readers who want stuff that tells them about the world, and the future, and what they can do to take part in it, and they are mostly being told that it’s really depressing, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and now is the best of all possible worlds. Is it any wonder they head for the adult shelves? The potential readers of SF written for teens have little respect for it, because they themselves can compare it to what is on offer for adults and know it does not match up.

How has this been allowed to happen? Partially, it is this strange insistence — encoded in that phrase “But children like it!” — that all children are the same. No one honestly believes this, but the rhetoric in the field doesn’t distinguish between “the child reader” (roughly understood as any child given a book and told to read it) and “the reading child” (from whose hands you have to remove the book so that they can eat). And it doesn’t distinguish between what different children read for or take into account that SF readers might have different criteria and priorities than the reader of realistic or fantasy fiction. Currently, we live in a world where fiction that provides “insight into the human condition” (usually defined as emotion) is lauded as having the ultimate literary value. This is not a given but part of the current cultural moment. Other values — learning about the mechanics of the world, for example — which were once celebrated, both in education and hierarchies of reading lists, are received uncertainly. We may want children to learn science and languages, but our societies regard children and adults who enjoy doing that as a bit odd.

The conflation of all children into one pool is improper, as a general principle, but when dealing with the children who like science fiction, it ignores the issue that those children — and their adult counterparts, readers and critics alike — have developed their own system of genre-specific criteria. Book after book on children’s and teen reading has assumed that it knows what children read for, and in the process has constructed an ideology of what children should read for. Repeatedly, the emphasis is on character, on empathy, on story, and on “relevance” (a word I have come to loathe for all its patronizing assumptions). Relevance to what children and teens are interested in? But which teens? What interests? And shouldn’t we be tempting readers to new interests? One of my science fiction correspondents, the very well respected SF and fantasy author Jo Walton, wrote that a book about meeting and communicating with aliens was very relevant to a child who regarded every other child in the school as an alien. As part of The Inter-Galactic Playground I undertook to survey a large body of SF readers. More than nine hundred responded to an online request. The results suggested that SF readers remembered their young selves wanting literature that taught them something about the world. Relationships of any kind were low priorities compared to ideas and information. The emphasis on emotional learning, and on emotion as the center of the narrative, distorts how science fiction for teens is understood, respected, and recommended.

When it is respected, it is not necessarily for the values that its readers recognize. For example, only one of the bibliographies I’ve read (Diana Tixier Herald’s Teen Genreflecting: A Guide to Reading Interests, Greenwood Press, 2003) has any time for the child or teen whose interest is not in how terrified Ender feels when he enters Battle School in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, but is rather in that magical moment when we all realize that “the enemy’s gate is down.” Ender’s Game is a mathematical, geographical, and strategic figure-ground puzzle that offers a wealth of abstract thought. It’s also intensely didactic. It’s one of the most popular SF books for teens from the 1970s, the very period when teen SF changed, yet it is the exception that proves the rule: although Ender’s Game is about children, it was not published for kids but appeared first in the pages of Analog magazine in 1977 and was nominated for a Hugo as Best Novelette. It was written for adults, published for adults in its book form, and only remarketed as a book for young people in 2002 when Tor — the largest of the SF imprints — decided to enter the YA market. With its extensive digressions into philosophy, religion, mechanics, and strategy, Ender’s Game is the model of what child and teen SF readers want, yet it is not what they were getting (or still get) within the pages of YA science fiction. (There are notable exceptions, but like Cory Doctorow or Philip Reeve or Oisín McGann, they are all authors with strong connections to the adult market.)

All of the above takes us back to critics, librarians, editors, and reviewers. Ender’s Game is a didactic book in which information is prized over emotional response. This structure is almost the hallmark of science fiction. Karen Traviss, a writer who works in her own universe but also writes some of the most successful tie-in novels the Star Wars franchise has seen, fills her books with discussions of everything from weapons to bond slavery, yet her mailbag is stuffed with fan letters from teens. Still, “didacticism” is one of the most threatening epithets that can be directed at an author. Didactic literature is bad literature.

Opposition to “didactic” literature is essentially ideological and has nothing to do with what some child readers want. First, didactic is too often used when the critic actually means pious (although I would point out that many of us enjoyed pious literature while young: C. S. Lewis and Charlotte M. Yonge were both very fine writers of piety). Second, the comment that a book is didactic is often rather prejudiced: we ignore the didactic we like but hit on the didactic we don’t. Ender’s Game, for example, is didactic both in terms of the math, philosophy, and politics it teaches and in terms of its sledgehammer moral messages around Nietzschean notions of the superior being and its arguments for genocide (which are eventually justified in a sequel). Favorable responses to bad YA science fiction often positively applaud the didacticism: what is Neal Shusterman’s recent Unwind if not a didactic anti-abortion argument? (Rehearsed previously in an unpleasant little story by Philip K. Dick called “The Pre-Persons,” 1974.) I lost count of the pro-ecology, anti-science didactic stories published between 1970 and 2000. But contemporary reviews preferred to herald these stories as “timely warnings” rather than condemn them for didacticism.

The review media are part of the problem. The much-vaunted “asset” of children’s literature, that it is not organized by genre, allows there to be experts in “children’s literature” in a way that no one would accept as a claim for expertise in all adult literature. This tendency ill serves a field such as SF whose values are at variance from the mainstream. The provision of genre material by nonspecialists (authors and editors) may serve up texts that are travesties of the genre to which they belong. Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember may be a very popular book, but any child who has acquired the sensibilities of a science fiction reader will quickly tear holes in it: one example only — a wind-up clock that keeps time for 250 years?

Review sources have been conditioned to think of their audience as librarians, teachers, and, to an extent, parents. There are good, historical reasons for this, but as both the buying power and the pester power of children increase, it has become more and more problematic. The Horn Book, for example, reviews mainly hardcovers. Yet my collection of science fiction is overwhelmingly paperback — Bruce Coville, Katherine Applegate, and other popular children’s SF writers sell predominantly in paperback. Indeed, science fiction for children and teens went through a long period (perhaps thirty years) in which it was relegated almost entirely to the paperback market. Only in 2000 did it start coming back into hardcover and begin to be reviewed in the mainstream children’s literature press. The validation of the hard covers did at least lift these books into the review columns, but I can’t say that many reviewers really knew what to do with them.

Can science fiction for children and teens gain respect? Review editors could make sure that their reviewers are not only familiar with the children’s and YA output in SF but that they also understand the rules by which adult SF plays. Publishers should be approaching authors in adult SF to write for teens; reviewers should be keeping a close eye on the science fiction publishing imprints that have begun to feed the children’s and teen field (Tor and Viking Penguin both now have YA imprints, Holiday House has produced excellent titles for children); there should be no distinction made on the basis of packaging — particularly not when that means reviewing only books younger readers cannot afford. Children’s fiction should not be treated as if it is something utterly separate from the adult market: by the age of thirteen, any child who has become a reader is quite likely to be reading simultaneously in both markets anyway, and as “realistic fiction” for teens is judged by the values of its adult counterparts (qualities of characterization, etc.), so too should SF be judged (plausibility of extrapolation, etc.). Some of this is happening: the publication of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve at the end of the last century seemed to demonstrate that there was a market for hardcover far-future, optimistic, and technology-heavy science fiction for children and teens. Yet there remains the issue of values: one of the most successful books for SF-reading teens last year was Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, yet every so often a reader commentator on one of the mailing lists would argue that the teens weren’t very realistic because they were more interested in politics and sabotaging an X-box than in relationships. Reviewers of SF for children and teens need to keep in mind that there is more than one mode of behavior — and definitely more than one kind of teenager.

Paul Kincaid is the scholar with whom I am most perhaps most ideologically aligned in terms of the way we understand science fiction. For both of us, sf is an attitude. This piece was written for a collection he and Andrew M. Butler put together to promote the Clarke Award. It consists of essays on most of the winners and is well worth obtaining. I had been on the jury that chose Dreaming in Smoke. Tricia Sullivan was an unknown at the time, and up against tough and very esteemed competition. We had run the Not the Clarke Award Panel at Eastercon that year and unfortunately this was the one book none of the panelists had read. So when Sullivan won most people did not really understand what we saw in it. I hope that this essay will demonstrate at least why I loved the book and will consider going to read it. It is one of the few novels I know of that takes up the challenge offered by Joanna Russ in We Who Are About To… (1977)



Dreaming in Smoke by Tricia Sullivan : A Novel of Colonisation


 The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, ed. Paul Kincaid with Andrew M. Butler.

Serendip Foundation: Daventry, pp. 153-162.



A small colony of Terrans sits on a planet. It is embattled. Contrary to survey reports, there is no oxygen and the planet is acid. Convinced they could resolve the Oxygen Problem within a generation, they have bred. Now they are hemmed in and the first new generation is desperate to leave the nest. The older generation (the Mothers) is drugged to its eyeballs, desperately holding on to the ever retreating hope that they can create a new Earth. Survival is dependent on the continued good health of the colony’s AI, popularly known as Ganesh, and the survival of Ganesh is dependent on witchdoctors and shotguns, half trained computer scientists and technicians who steer the colony’s cyber-time into what they hope are safe paths.

Colony novels are one of the most unrealistic forms that science fiction has produced. S. M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time sequence is a good example: although the colonisation project is a shock to the community (they are thrown back in time), the subsequent events prove the colonists to be practical people who cope — most things go right, relatively few people die (not even of diabetes).6 Colonisation just isn’t like that. Brian Stableford’s Daedalus series, has the right idea: one can never tell just what an environment will do to a colony. One cannot prepare for what is unknown. But even here colonists are rescued by a single ship with “the answer”.

Here is what we know about colonisation, culled from anthropologists looking at pacific migration, historians considering colonisation in America, Australia and India, and refugee workers dealing with mass forced migration. In any colonisation attempt lots of people will die. Death rates in colonial Virginia were so high that life expectancy for men was less than thirty and many women had up to three husbands (industrial injury being a lot more dangerous than childbirth which only happened once a year after all, and often less because disease and poor nutrition reduces fertility). In New England relative social equality and a near British climate helped to reduce mortality, but death rates of children were still high, and a lot of people just gave up and left. Colonists had continually to be replenished. New arrivals to Virginia had a life expectation of less than five years (if they lasted that long it increased dramatically). Slaves imported to the Caribbean were lucky to last two years: ironically the constant replenishment increased death rates because it brought with it wave upon wave of disease.

Colonies aren’t attractive despite the legends. New England had to advertise for colonists. For the first two generations, and well into the mid-eighteenth century, traffic went both ways. Both Virginia and New England only became “self-sufficient” when they found things to trade to Europe (as late as 1890, their paper trade was supplied with old rags from Europe because the US did not produce enough waste), and once neighbouring colonies became commercially active enough to trade with them. Economic and cultural isolation may be at least partially responsible for the tides of religious evangelism which spread across frontier districts. In the twentieth century “revolving migration” (ie working long enough to buy land back home) was thought of as a social “problem” even if the group who most practiced it — the Italians — weren’t necessarily desirable.

And these are just the voluntary migrants. Among refugees, the health of the settler generation is markedly poor. It used to be assumed that this was simply a consequence of ill-treatment in their home country, now it is thought that forced uprooting is traumatic enough to undermine health for life.

Given all of this, Sullivan’s vision a stranded colony on a hostile planet is impressive. Although infant mortality is never discussed, the sense of danger is ever present. We know from early on that people died to try and make the world inhabitable, and that they died failing. The older generation came with an Errand in the Wilderness and the failure of that vision has robbed them of their purpose. In the loss of purpose has come a reversion to engrained gender divisions. Mothers have gained status both from their sacrifice of their own genetic potential and their willingness to host and birth many children. The men of the party are Grunts, presumably bright, but mostly seen as a way to get heavy work done. Had the scientists survived, the gender division might not have been so rigid, offered a different set of role models, but as it is, the younger generation despise the older as drug addled baby machines, and unthinking muscle.

The stage is set for new ideologies and fervent dreaming, even for a Great Awakening, and it is the Wild which is the locus of these dreams.

As the novel opens Kalypso, silliest and least intelligent member of the new generation, is steering Azamat Marcsson through a deeply unimaginative virtual reality in which he is converting abstract mathematics into concrete shapes when “a four-dimensional snake with a Canadian accent, eleven heads and attitude employed a Dirangian function to rip out all her veins, then swiftly crocheted them into a harp that could only play a medley of Miles Davis tunes transposed (to their detriment) into the key of G). (p. 1). Kalypso has been careless. Waiting until Marcsson was asleep, Kalypso has tickled Ganesh in “Just that Spot” and gained entrance to Ganesh’s earth archives. Kalypso’s intentions are facile, she wants to listen to Miles Davies, but she has breached the closed Earth archives and accidentally allowed Azamat Marcsson access to the AI’s core, and the core to have access to him. Throughout the novel, which way around we read this is continually in flux: this is a novel in which the colonizers are also and always the colonized.

In the chaos Marcsson creates in the core he escapes in to the Wild of the planet taking with him Kalypso and a spare boat. Kalypso is trapped, partially because she goes to pieces — this is not a strong, active heroine — and also because the truth of the world she is on is that all Marcsson has to do to hold her is take away her environment apparatus. Meanwhile, the colony discovers that Ganesh is in melt-down, and as Kalypso has always been regarded as a touch unreliable they are not at all sure whether she is a victim or a collaborator.

Out in the Wild Kalypso discovers that she has been lied to. The Dead — the roster of scientists who died in an attempt to solve the Oxygen problem — are dead only in the metaphorical sense. They live on, scarred and sterile, in the Wild, growing drugs for the Mothers and hoping to develop one so powerful that it will tempt Earth to come back for the colony. What happens next is what marks Dreaming in Smoke out as that bit different from any of the models it seems to have chosen. Dreaming in Smoke is a new colony novel, a cyber-punk novel and a first contact story. No one else (to this critic’s knowledge) has tried to put all three together.

One of the difficulties for any science fiction writer setting a story on a new world is how to get away from Earth referents. Sullivan does it by embedding those referents in the dreams and resentments of the new generation,


‘I know! Let’s play Future.’

They all looked at each other awkwardly. Nobody said anything.

‘Oh!’ Liet burst out. ‘I have an idea. We’re going to have buses.’

‘Buses,’ they echoed wonderingly. (51)

‘Yeah, ‘cause, imagine. There’ll be roads. And so many people that a bunch of people might, you know, happen to be going in the same direction at the same time, and so to make it more efficient, we’d have. Well. Buses.’ (51)


Much later it will occur to Kalypso that their dreams and aspirations have been based almost entirely on a world that is unavailable, that the Dead, however lost, have at lease tried to live with the world as it is. This is the crisis for what the historian Isiah Berlin described as the creole generation in any settlement movement. Berlin argued that there are three movements in any new colonial venture; the settlers, who look backwards, the creole who look forward and don’t belong, and the third the natives. We can see the affect of this formulation if we apply it to the first three generations of sf writers: the writers of Amazing are the settlers, those of Astounding, the Creole generation and the New Wave are the first indigenous generation. The first generation set the mission, the second develop the language, and the third begin to question the first and experiment freely with the second. Sullivan’s book however, is a consideration specifically of the problems of the second generation, the Creoles, whose role it is to create the language and hence the cultural constructs which bridge old and new worlds.

Creole children, educated by old-worlders for a new world, are not yet natives, they do not yet have indigenous dreams. When the Core finally goes down and the colony is ejected into the world, the argument will continue to rage between those whose ideas are still fixed on the old world and those who look forward. The threat of the loss of Earth archives is very real. Although the Mothers regret it as the holder of memories, Kalypso recognises it as cultural continuum. “‘What might have been different about history if the library [of Alexandria] hadn’t burned. (190) But in the meantime, Sullivan can use these games of speculation to emphasise the stakes in this world. “‘You could live in a cardboard box. I mean, imagine. You could be a social outcast, and still live and breathe. That’s incredible!’” (52) The world’s brutality is described by what is not possible. There is a hard-sf quality to this book that slides by in the wild dreamings of the interface, yet is incorporated in the sensibility of the cyber world that Sullivan creates.

One of the things that makes cyberpunk distinct from hard-sf is that it is the work of what we might call the users rather than the creators of a technological society. If you want to see what I mean by this, take a look at Jenny Uglow’s non-fiction, The Lunar Men, a history of the eighteenth century mechanical an natural philosophers who built the industrial revolution. There is not a single aspect of technology in that book which is not transparent. By that I mean that someone like myself, who managed to fail physics in school (but did pretty well in maths, this is not the standard English apology) can read the explanations and make the mechanics work in her mind. She can imagine taking apart a steam engine and being able to work out through reason and following the mechanical logic of the machinery to put it back together.

Now try to do that with a modern telephone.

The age of transparent technology has disappeared in Western Europe and North America. Most of us open the hood of our car to discover a sealed plastic lump. We can no longer play with the material of our world. Apart from perhaps explaining why our Physics and Engineering departments are full of people from parts of the world that still rely on what we might call accessible technology, it also helps explain what cyberpunk is.

Cyberpunk is the science fiction for a generation for whom Clarke’s Law — that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — has come true in ways that Clarke did not envisage. It is not the technology of the future that seems magical but that which we work with today. When I began typing for example, one of the essential lessons my mother taught me was how to fix a manual typewriter with a hair grip (US: bobby pin). A few years later, this was replaced with “winding back single use ribbon cartridges with a screwdriver”. These days I call up Charlie Stross and wail “Charlie, the light on my magic box won’t come on!!!!” Cyberpunk is the literature of the generation that can move effortlessly through the lit house, but can’t fix the fuses because they’ve all been fitted with a “replace after failure” blue plastic box. Kalypso is just this kind of person in this kind of society.

Now try being a colonial settler when the mechanics of survival aren’t mechanical, when they consist of technologies which don’t involve getting out an axe or a screwdriver. So cybperspace in Dreaming in Smoke is both empowering and frightening; empowering because it gives the illusion of control, frightening because it substitutes metaphor for logic.

Although the cyber-space that Ganesh creates is accessible to all, it is not a shared world space. Two people can inhabit it, but what they see will be different.


In the Dream, Kalypso shrugged, knowing he could read her body as easily as any verb she might sent. Yet he couldn’t actually perceive her sensory references, he could only follow the code. (57)


This, interestingly, is the key to the planet’s eco-system. Necko (one of the Dead) explains that they failed to solve the oxygen problem because “‘‘…we can see that the answer lies in the logic of the System. And we can’t unravel that logic, because there doesn’t seem to be any. Not that we can comprehend.’” (125). There is a parallel here if we listen carefully. Kalypso cannot be accompanied in her Dream because logic in the Dream state is personal, metaphorical, and keyed to the individual. Necko cannot accompany the planet in its structures because logic in those structures is keyed to the planet and its inhabitants and Necko is part of the first generation: she expects a mechanical world. Kalypso, on the other hand is, or may become, a creole, part of a generation used to representational physics. But first she has to reject what she has learned:


All her life Kalypso had been suffering from the dangerous misconception that everything which needed to be done could be broken down into objectives and then attacked. She was caught in the delusion that problems had solutions…After several days in the Wild, she came to the slow and unwelcome realization that the shelter of Neko’s boat was not the end of her ordeal; it was not the beginning of a journey back; it was not the dawn of a new life. Rather it was the negation of everything she’d every held as true. (138)


As is frequently the case with Dreaming in Smoke the paragraph can be real literally or metaphorically and should probably be read as both. It is the moment when Kalypso’s internal creoloisation is fixed, when she moves from the rational and mechanical, to accepting her entire world as a functioning rather more like the metaphorical simulations of cyberspace (or Ganesh). It is a conversion moment…it is right therefore that it takes place in the wilderness. Kalypso, alone in her generation, has heard God, and God is the planet. At least if they want to survive.

And if God is the planet then her first prophet is Sieng. Leader of the Dead Sieng experimented on her own body, and the Dead continue to use her as a mobile cell culture. It is here that Sullivan’s is mostly vividly expressive.


The luna stack wavered, its integrity compromised by the combination of disturbed magnetism and the physical cut. Marcsson reached through the slit and a gelatinous mass spilled into his arms. It was still recognizably human, despite the growing things that had made a home of its structure. Sieng’s body was carnival bright. (162)


If the humans are attempting to colonise the planet but failing, the planet appears to have done a creditable job of colonising Sieng. And Marcsson, mad as he is, has recognised that this is the key. Despite the alien-ness of the planet’s deep down structures there is something there that finds meaningfulness in human DNA. So Marcsson decides to experiment on another, “clean” human. If Sieng was reckless he is methodical.

By this time, Kalypso is well into full fledged Stockholm syndrome. “He was so forceful. So convinced of himself, that it was easier to go along with him than to maintain a posture of detachment. She began to accept his behaviour.


She told herself that although she was physically his captive, her mind was her own. She instructed herself that she could be strong and retain a sense of herself.

This of course was untrue. (166)


By the time Marcsson begins experimenting on Kalypso’s skin, she is half gone, when Marcsson in his ravings distinguishes between touching her and touching the corrupted body of Sieng, Kalypso cries out “‘You want to touch her. Always her her her her. I’m alive. Please —’” (197) A long as he does not tie her up, Kalypso will let him to carve her skin into diamonds, each diamond a separate culture, will in fact revel in her preciousness to him even as she despairs.

Kalypso is being colonised by both the planet and by Marcsson. Again we have this sense of occupation and occupied. Creolisation it seems, comes at the price of a earlier self. Virginians were not the same as Yorkshire men. African-Americans are not the same as Africans. The land colonises. The environment, the culture, all are stronger than the individual. This idea cuts across eight decades of genre science fiction. With its roots in the Robinsinade, colonisations science fiction clings to the idea that the individual will tame the wilderness. Not until Joanna Russ wrote the astounding We Who Are About To… (1977) did the idea percolate that maybe, just maybe, the environment would win. Although Sullivan doesn’t go quite as far as Russ — she doesn’t actually wipe out her colony — she has very little time for the strong heroic pioneer. Kalypso is no-one’s cliché of the strong protagonist finding his/her strength in the presence of adversity.

When you are small and not all that terribly bright…when you are small you’ve got to be tough…You have to wear your strength like a badge…Kalypso, huddled beneath the canopy among the specimens she had to process…suddenly couldn’t stand the thought of being strong. It made her feel physically sick. (172-3)

Along with the myth of successful colonisation narratives — all you need is sensible planning, a strong spirit and luck — Sullivan insists to the reader that faced with kidnap, isolation, and the threat of torture in the name of scientific discovery the hero is going to crumble. That “eventually, no matter how stupid you are it dawns on you that you have no control.” (176) This isn’t an sf narrative, but it is a truth. One way to read Sullivan’s novel is that much of it is a long, slow realisation of the cold equations. That Kalypso does eventually survive will have more to do with the planet’s actions than hers. Because by the end, what we also discover is that Ganesh has broken down because the planet, and some kind of sentience that exists on the planet, has colonised the AI.

Communicating the incomprehensible is tricky. Sf keeps trying, but not that many writers manage it. Sullivan opts instead to have one of her characters communicate the incomprehensiveness of the incomprehensible to the uncomprehending. “‘The CNS and the senses, this apparent dichotomy between inside and outside, abstraction and reality; these are a consequence of our special evolution. Each of us is a turned-inward bubble, a curious piece of the world’s topography.’”(233) Liet explains to her audience. Or fails to explain. Tehar one of the witchdoctors expresses the conundrum thus: ‘You can’t understand what you can’t understand. You want to extract something from a phenomenon and hold it up to the light, see it in your terms. But it can’t be seen by you. Ganesh can see something you can’t see.’ (233) But while Ganesh can see the promised land, if the settlers cannot communicate with their god, if its communication codes are rewritten entirely, they will be shut out of the interface, out of the records and out of their last chance of survival. On a new planet, Hell truly is the absence of God.

In the end, Kalypso must follow Marcsson back into the interface and challenge him for control of the virtual reality. But Kalypso and Marcsson are in some senses only avatars for Ganesh’s thoughts, a working out of its relationship with the planet and the alien sentience which has colonised its workings. In the final scene in the Dreaming, Marcsson is absorbed and Kalypso ejected and as she opens one eye “In the spaces between and around her fellow humans, it saw brilliant luma.” (278).

The world that Ganesh makes for them is not earth. It is cooling but unstable, occasionally stars come out. “The volcanoes still glowered over the Rift, and the colors of the luma might never be friendly, Earth colors. She would never belong here.” (285) But this is home, a home made as much by the system mastering the humans and the humans mastering it. Ganesh is no longer AI, but engine. God has both departed and been made real. What started as a novel of colonisation became a Creation Cycle. The new generation, the next generation of Indigenes will have tales of a lost world, but their memories and bodies will be shaped by the planet they will be as much colonized as colonizers. Some future Earth adventurers will discover these lost adventurers, and reshape their story within a different paradigm of science fiction.

I wrote this article while I was working on my MA in Peace Studies. It was published in Extrapolation in vol, 35, number 2, 1994. I still regard it is as my first ‘real’ article. It turned out to have legs as it was not until 2002 that Justine Larbalastier and later in 2008 Lisa Yaszek produced their influential works on earlier female science fiction writers. For many years it was my most cited article.

Were I to write it today it would look very different: I now know far more about the hidden feminisms of the 1950s, of the Women’s Strike for Peace, the role of women in the civil rights movements and the anti war movements. I would not now use the term ‘pre feminist’. I am far more aware of the many writings and the existence of a clear first wave feminist ‘peace theory’. But I still like the article for what it does, and I am rather delighted to realise that my growing interest in rhetoric, in the power of language. and in the consensus language of the field is evident in even this very early work.


NB: I have made very minor edits where I consider a sentence to have become hopelessly tangled, but nothing of substance has been changed. I have also left it in American punctuation.



Gender, Power, and Conflict Resolution: “Subcommittee” by Zenna Henderson


Studies of gender and science fiction have remained rare despite the recent boom in gender studies. The principal reason for this is that gender remains for many a euphemism for “women”. Women are gendered; men are not. The directions feminist science-fiction criticism has taken have mitigated against the exploration of gender, either as an issue or a tool. Feminist criticism has instead explored a number of alternative paths, beginning from the “women in …” approach and the consideration of the portrayal of women in sf and moving on, in understandable desperation, to the consideration of feminist and predominantly female authors. Here I will consider briefly some of the pitfalls and potential inadequacies which both these approaches risk, and suggest a move towards the exploration of gender as a historical phenomon and as a tool for the critic. I will employ, as an example and test case, the short story “Subcommittee” by Zenna Henderson.

The “women in…” approach to sf, exploring the portrayal of female characters rather than authors, talks of difference and stereotype, placing an emphasis on the unimaginative caricatures with which the supposedly speculative genre abounds. The difficulty this presents emerges with the very nature of stereotyping theory. Martin Barker, in Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, argues very convincingly that inherent in any discussion of stereotype are certain contradictions. Stereotype theory demands that the literature and the media should “reflect” society, however, “in a society where, for example, black people are disproportionately kept in low paid jobs and on the dole, or sent to prison, to have this simply ‘reflected’ in the media would cause outrage” (206). One is then faced with the demand that only the “acceptable” face of reality be shown. Barker identifies two types of stereotype within this ideology. The first, a “deviation” from the “real world”, such as suggesting that “women want sex all the time”; the second actually answers this criticism by “reflecting” the world outside. “Here, a good deal of media representation is condemned for showing women in the home, providing services to men – although of course it is in fact true that very many do” (207).

The difficulty in challenging this, in demanding “non-stereotypical images,” is further exacerbated by the tendency of the critic to be urging a hidden agenda. Ellen Seiter suggests that the most frequent manifestation of this problem is the agenda of the “bourgeois career individual,” and ideal every bit as stereotyped as that of “hearth and home” (Barker 207). An example of how this appears in feminist sf criticism is evident in an article by Caroline Wendell. The article considers the depiction of women in the nebula award winners between 1965 and 1973, focusing particularly on Delany’s Babel-17 and Panshin’s Rite of Passage.

Each of the two novels in this group has a female protagonist: Mia Haverow in Alexi Panshin’s Rite of Passage (novel, 1968) and Rydra Wong in Delany’s Babel-17 (novel, 1966). Both heroines are tough, intellectually as well as physically. Mia can argue ethics and sports black eyes with pride; Rydra is a gifted linguist who deciphers the difficult Babel 17, and is capable of captaining a spaceship and handling herself in armed or hand-to-hand combat. Feminist criticism must centre not on the two women themselves (although they are perhaps too super powerful to be realistic human beings), but on the male dominated milieus in which each moves. Mia and Rydra have been taught by males and interact with males. Neither has ever had a woman figure to learn from nor are they provided with any significant female peers. Though this type of heroin is preferable to the mental defective who is totally submissive to men, neither is completely autonomous and independent because both seem to be exceptions in a world of men. (Wendell 350)7

This is a classic example of attempting to have it all ways. The heroines, in fulfilling Wendell’s earlier demand that female characters should not be depicted as passive, are now “too superpowerful to be realistic human beings.” Clearly Wendell has her own personal perception of the limits of properly depicted independence, and speculation beyond these boundaries becomes implausible. Equally when both Delany and Panshin depict successful women in the environment they are realistically likely to experience, they are condemned for being “exceptions in the world of men.” In support of Wendell’s critique it is plausible to argue that the actual difficulty is in the apparent lack of speculation in a self-declared speculative genre. Leaving aside the issue that men are rarely treated to such speculative competence either, Wendell has unfortunately already excluded this argument from her own array of weapons, in part because she herself has already set a limit of plausibility in matters of female strength; in consequence, she has set a limit on the plausibility of other areas of speculation. On Russ’s “When it Changed,” for example, she comments, “it [Whileaway] does not, cannot, exist. Men and women do live together and must see one another as people, not stereotypes. And that would be the best of all possible worlds” (351).

Apart from my personal questioning of her assumption of the continued heterosexuality of the species, it appears to me that Wendell has continued to judge both “stereotyping” and “character plausibility” by her own political ideals. This is, of course, not necessarily a problem. The difficulty is caused by the placement of all value on the critic’s judgment. The political agenda of the critic is neither openly acknowledged, nor does it recognise the social reality of the authors at the time of publication, for both novels are written more than 10 years prior to the article and 2 to 4 years prior to the rapid development of the modern women’s movement.

One mechanism by which a critic may avoid most of the above problems is specifically to target feminist sf. This has the merit – in directing itself to a study of those features adjudged feminist, or, in the absence of such a clear dialectic or rhetoric, illustrating female perceptions of the world – of admitting, at least in theory, a multiplicity of possible female perceptions. However, as the above extract from Wendell’s article demonstrates, this is not automatic, and there remains a tendency on the part of some (and I am more than willing to admit that I have been one) to a judge plausibility of plot on the basis of political agreement. As I have suggested already, my judgment of the plausibility of Whileaway differs from Wendell’s not because I believe the work any more or less challenging as literature then Wendell suggests, but because my politics make it difficult for me to believe that men are not ever voluntarily going to give women anything much worth having in the way of liberation, and this includes an assumption that anything men do give – rather than that which women take – may as easily be reclaimed.

The above comments may suggest that I am arguing for academic objectivity. As I do not believe that any such thing exists, I make haste to say that such political criticism has its place. My real qualms are that so much of this type of criticism is both unhistorical and ahistorical and that neither of the two approaches detailed above actually exploit to the full the new possibilities which gender, as a tool, has opened up.

The identification of “stereotype” in any literature runs the constant risk of ahistoricism: it may remove author and text from their cultural context and require of them and awareness of the sensitivities of a 1990s academic. This is not to excuse stereotyping or a lack of speculative imagination but is to be aware that criticism needs to be alive to the cultural context of the author: it is difficult for any author to speculate on the inconceivable, and the interesting and innovative speculation of one generation rapidly becomes offensive to the next. And example of the ease with which non-historians both identify and simultaneously ignore this element is to be seen in an article by Darko Suvin and Mark Angenot, who argue that, “any literary text contains its historical epoque as a hierarchy of significations within the text, just as the epoque contains the text as both product and factor” (169). And yet, they are content to declare, “it is of course possible and is not infrequent for readers to have a distorted perception of our common world, through ignorance, misinformation, mystification, or class interest: for them, literature will not be properly “readable” until their interests change” (169).

This nicely ignores the “hierarchy of significations” within the reader, of which historical epoch is only one.8 Feminist criticism of feminist writing, in focusing almost exclusively on a feminist sub-genre, is usually able to sidestep this issue or, alternatively, march to its own inner history of which the majority of feminist readers, writers, and critics are fully aware. This does not always work, as with Sarah Lefanu’s consideration of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Ruins of Isis. Although both works are products of the new map laid out by the feminist movement, the following, in challenging the sexual relationship at the heart of the novel, shows little awareness of the speed at which the political agenda of the women’s movement changed. Consequently she faults Zimmer Bradley for her inadequacy in answering the questions of an agenda not yet set (38–45). In turn, the temptation remains to impose upon “mainstream” sf a political context that has not in reality seeped through from the feminist subgenre. This has the effect not only of creating anachronistic negative criticism but of denying justly deserved praise where speculation around gender issues does take place, as in Delany’s Babel-17 or theBallad of Beta-2. Ultimately, feminist criticism of feminist texts, while interesting and illuminating, is a self congratulatory circle neither reaching beyond the feminist sf community nor acknowledging and learning from the profound changes in the genre as a whole, instanced by the absence of major critical assessment of the gendered male9 in science fiction. As long as this remains the case, the gender debate continues to be one sided. Gender and gender relations are subsumed beneath the study of women and of feminism in sf, something I hope both to avoid and to illustrate below.

Despite their longevity, neither of the above approaches have, as yet, allowed gender to be placed easily within a more complex matrix of identity and response. What happens when gender roles, stereotyped or otherwise, are employed by the writer to explore quite different issues? Where stereotyped and rigid gender characteristics are assumed in consequence of historical context, possibilities of speculation may actually be opened out rather than, as is conventionally assumed, restricted. I would have preferred to have turned at this point to a piece by a male author, but, anxious to employ a story I like and admire rather than one I do not, I have selected instead “Subcommittee” by Zenna Henderson. The story qualifies because as a piece of “prefeminist” writing it is engaged with characters who, by a 1990s estimation, are extreme stereotypes of masculine and feminine. It would be easy to discuss the story in terms of its qualities despite the unfortunate stereotypes. But, by exploring what the author wrote rather than what I as a feminist might have liked her to have written, it becomes evident that the very construction of characters allows for the exploration of a complexity of issues not otherwise possible. The three issues I have selected to discuss here are gender [sic], power and conflict resolution, and the extent to which an exploration of any of these issues relies on or is supported by consideration of the others.

“Subcommittee,” by Zenna Henderson, first published in 1962, is on one level a standard story of alien invasion resolved not by military victory but by understanding, friendship, and femininity – a study, in fact, of conflict resolution. Equally, however, the story is revealing as a critique of power structures and the language of power and, finally, as a study of gender. Serena is waiting for her husband, a general, to conclude negotiations with a force of alien invaders. In order to impress upon the Earth the friendly intentions of the invaders, the aliens have suggested that all parties should bring their families to the site of the negotiations. Serena finds herself the only young mother and the only human with a small child. As there is no communication between the humans and the aliens outside the negotiating chamber, she and her son, Splinter, are very lonely. In the meantime, negotiations are near to break down. The Earth generals are unable to discover the needs or desires of the aliens; there is a suspicion that the presence of the aliens’ families may be merely an attempt to play upon the Earth’s sense of honour and to weaken a military response. And when Serena suggests a more welcoming attitude, her husband, Thorn, reverts to the language of revenge: “‘Go visit! Talk!’ His voice choked off. Then he calmly went on. ‘Would you care to visit with the windows of our men who went to visit the friendly Linjeni? Whose ships dropped out of the sky without warning —’” (32).

Sabrina, attempting to inject a more reasonable note, questions who shot first, but Thorn has by this time turned over and gone to sleep. Later conversations are no more fruitful. To Thorne the aliens are “uncommunicative” and “hostile” and Serena, isolated from the negotiations, does not know them the way he does. In this he is correct. Instead of attempting to fathom whether they want the oceans or merely the world, Serena has been sharing picnics with Mrs Pink and her son Doovie. To her, Mrs Pink is the nice lady next door across the fence whose son she “saved” from drowning (unnecessarily as it happens, for Doovie’s feet are webbed) and with whom — having secretly learned some Linjeni — she talks “women’s things” sharing skills in knitting and embroidery. Consequently, it is Sabrina who discovers what the aliens want: the offer of a hard-boiled egg the triggers the denoument, and we discover what the alien so desperately need and have come so far to find, is salt. Without it there will be no more than Linjeni babies.

Were Serena male, or possibly a stronger — perhaps “feminist” — character, she would return home, tell Thorn, and wait for the generals to sort it out. Instead, she is deterred from speaking by her husband’s contemptuous dismissal of her horror at the news that the negotiations are breaking down and that war is being planned. She is “idealistic” and consequently unable to contribute to the “real” world of decision making. In a show of great courage, Serena instead sneaks into the conference room the next day, springing her solution, Portia-like, upon the entire assembly.10

What is it that makes this story worthy of consideration in place of any other story — of which there are many — whose fulcrum is ‘is women’s intuition’? I would argue that its importance revolves around the story’s discussion of those characteristics we customarily associate with sex difference, either biological or sociological, although I do not intend to argue here whether gender is biological or sociological. In a sense, it might be considered as irrelevant to the science fiction author for whom everything, speculatively speaking, is up for grabs.

First, at no time is Serena portrayed as intuitive as such: she makes no guesses; rather, she listens and learns. Instead, Thorn and Serena are demonstrably operating from and within different social milieus. As a man, Thorn’s automatic reaction to a stranger is to assess the potential challenge he — and I use this pronoun deliberately — represents. Thorn’s worry is that “‘We’ve lost a lot of the cunning that used to be necessary in dealing with other people’” (23). What he has not lost is the belief that cunning and suspicion are the appropriate responses to the stranger. This is not necessarily bad, merely one legitimate response to a working world with a structure that requires its members constantly to defend their social status and a world in which status is determined in terms of hierarchy – a survival mechanism, if you will. Serena, on the other hand, exists within a world of morning coffee and neighborliness, with its own mores and codes of conduct. Her reaction to the stranger, therefore, is — metaphorically — to knock on the door with a cake. This is not feminine intuition or any innate feminine gentleness, but it is integral to a complex social community with its own values and demands. As an alternative to the competitive ethos of the “masculine” workplace, it has an established pattern of networking which assists in breaking down the potential for social isolation that might be the experience of the woman working in the home. Consequently, the survival skills gained by women in this early 1960s society may prove more effective in this “first contact” situation than those learned by men for use in a more combative scenario. In this story they are crucial to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, while “femininity” is revalued; presumably, the suggestion is that the masculine must work with rather than exclude the feminine in order to maximize the abilities that humans may call upon in times of need. However, this does not challenge the idea that man is always masculine or woman feminine; we are in a world of “separate spheres,” and these roles are apparently fixed, a world of complementarity rather than equality, an idea that has its own validity in the history of feminist thought and retains its validity in both the “mainstream” and margins of the movement today. The clue that Henderson may see the artificial intensity of the gender divisions that she depicts rests in the names she bestows on her characters: “Thorn,” hard and masculine; “Serena,” gentle and peaceful. Admittedly, these may simply be conventional names of any American romance of the period, but this is arguably deliberate parody; they are just too characteristic of the romance genre to be other than tongue-in-cheek.

If Henderson’s story were concerned only to show the value of femininity in the public world, “Subcommittee” might have ended sooner than it did. Instead, to read further is to read also an exploration and critique of power structures and the language of power. The process by which the denouement is achieved displays rather adequately the powerlessness of Serena and, inadvertently, of Mrs. Pink, the only other female character we meet in the story. Serena’s attempt to offer an alternative to war is dismissed as idealistic by Thorn. Within this marriage it is made clear that her role is to listen and not criticize, a point reinforced by Serena’s avowed fear of his reaction, stated toward the end of the story. Interestingly, it is made clear the next day that Mrs. Pink has had similar difficulties, for the Linjeni High Command does not appear to be aware that understanding has been reached. But then, in effect it has not, for those who have gained this understanding have no place in the hierarchy and consequently no voice. They are people to whom things happen, not men who may be actors on their own stage. Serena challenges this hierarchy when she sneaks into the conference, but she reinforces it by the very fact of this sneaking. Serena does not demand entrance nor assert to the guard that she has an important mission — usually the first method of any male hero, even if he does then resort to climbing in at a window — but instead persuades (or manipulates) the guard into allowing her to “take a look.” She therefore accedes to a structure that suggests that her presence, unlike possibly that of a man on an equivalent mission, is and always remains illegitimate. One challenge to this argument is that manipulation is itself a source of power. This is to obscure the difference between the manipulation by the oppressor and the oppressed; the former is a form of coercion, the latter a means of gaining a temporary advantage by acceding to the perceptions of the powerful. While this may be a useful tactic for short-term survival, its process allows for the reinforcement rather than the undermining of extant power structures and cannot be a long-term strategy for change. Neither manipulation nor influence should be confused with power, for both rely implicitly on the consent of the subject to be manipulated, whereas power can be exercised beyond the boundaries of consent. In achieving her audience, Serena can be seen to step beyond the “feminine’ and to take on the active, masculine role. However the dynamics of power within the negotiations is not changed; the general might reasonably have had Serena removed before she were able to interrupt without fear of condemnation. That he does not is quite obviously integral to the plot, but not integral is the subsequent remarginalization of Serena. Having dropped her bombshell, Serena becomes again the hopeful idealistic female whose role is to watch and support while others work out the realities.

If Henderson’s purpose is not to challenge the gender structures of her society — although she does question its values — the structure of language and the dynamic relationship of language and power are exposed. The constriction that language places on communication and the extent to which language too11 has a hierarchy and is gendered in its use and meaning are crucial to both the plot and to the success with which attempts are made by both human and Linjeni to resolve potential and actual conflict. Serena identifies accurately that the language and context of the conference is not conducive to conflict resolution, is not, in fact, geared to any such thing: “‘What have you been talking about all this time? Guns? Battles? Casualty lists? We’ll-do-this-to-you-if-you-do-that-to-us? I don’t know!… I don’t know what goes on at high level conference tables. All I know is that I’ve been teaching Mrs. Pink to knit and how to cut a lemon pie’” (40).

Unsurprisingly, this induces confusion amongst the translators, culminating in their complete failure to translate “baby.” As Serena contemplates, “Babies have no place in a military conference.” The key to Serena’s success is that she challenged the masculine culture of difference and threat in order to assert instead a culture of “neighborliness” — a term more appropriate here than “friendship,” for it is deliberately inclusive and welcoming of the stranger – and the value structure of female domestic society. In addition, we also learn something of the nature of communication as a whole. Both Splinter and Serena communicate before either has learnt Linjeni. Splinter puts it best; “You don’t have to talk to play!” (30). Neither of course do you need to talk to war. Serena, in her turn, communicates by play acting, by mime and with food but without, interestingly, the traditional point-and-name — usually with the first reference to oneself – that has become a cliché in modern fiction, sf or otherwise. The point-and-name begins after both women have begun to learn each other’s language in private and when communication — through food and through skills — has already been well established. Verbal communication becomes a gift each offers to the other rather than a necessity each wants.

Where does all this leave us? It becomes evident that a story written employing rather rigidly defined and rigidly gendered characters is offering a constructive alternative to the language of war, employing these characters in a manner humorous, but not exaggerated, in order to provide a plausible scenario. Serena employs female and feminine illustrations not merely because they are what she has at hand and is able to draw from her experience — although an exploration of how the personal becomes political might be of value here — but because the masculine language and context at hand are simply not adequate for peacemaking. The failure of the translators to keep up with Serena, their inability to find “pink” or “God” in their vocabularies, becomes a symbol of the different approaches of male and female to the process of communication. The solution suggested is not that women take over (this is not a discussion of women’s rights) but that conflict resolution requires a language of its own rather than one bastardized from the language of war; it challenges the belief that such language is “neutral” yet continues to operate in a context of early 1960s ideas of the positive nature of gender difference.

That the focus of this story is on conflict resolution, rather than conflict, is in itself an early deviation from the norm of that sf concerned with war and the military. As such, to concentrate entirely on what this piece has to tell the academic reader about sf speculation on women – and to condemn it for such a lack of speculation — would be to distort the piece in terms of what it attempts to achieve and to ignore its historical specificity. However, by concentrating the discussion on conflict resolution, the manner in which gender issues are exploited is illuminated. Gender is not the story, but it does act both as driver and container of the plot, without which such a complex exploration of power, communication, and conflict resolution might require far greater levels of polemic than exist here. Additionally, by examining the depiction of men and women through a historical lens we learn something of the nature of Henderson’s speculative abilities that enable her to exploit, rather than be confined by contemporary social codes and conventions.

Because this is a short story, it is not possible to assess conclusively whether the resolution results in a genuine or long-lasting challenge to a value structure that places “male” survival mechanisms and social rituals above “female” or, alternatively, whether this is subsequently subsumed within an assumption of a “higher female morality,” to be called on at will. My own reading that it is not is inevitably based upon my own expectations as a 1994 feminist. Should you wish to apply labels, one might term the piece “proto-feminist”; this however, to labor the point, distracts fundamentally from what the story is about.



Works Cited

Angenot, Marc, and Darko Suvin. “Not Only But Also: Reflections on Cognition and Ideology in Science Fiction and SF Criticism.” Science Fiction Studies July 1979: 168-79.

Barker, Martin. Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critic. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989.

Henderson, Zenna. “Subcommittee.” The Anything Box. London: Panther Science Fiction, 1969. 23-44.

Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London: The Women’s Press, 1988.

Wendell, Carolyn. “The Alien Species: A Study of Women Characters in the Nebula Award Winners, 1965-1973.” Extrapolation 20, Winter 1979: 343-54, 350.

In 2001 Rhonda Wilcox approached me to write for a new book on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I declined but said “get back to me if you find you have a gap, a theme you need writing on”. Rhonda took me at my word and approached me to for a queer reading of the series. I like this article because it ends up exploring the limits of a theory, the point at which something doesn’t work and why. I realise many theory oriented writers will disagree with me, but for me, it is this edge that demonstrates for me why a theory actually works, not the centre where it all seems obvious.



Surpassing the Love of Vampires


Why (and How) a Queer Reading of the Buffy/Willow Relationship is Denied.

From: Fighting the forces: what’s at stake in Buffy the vampire slayer. [+ Lavery, David+] and Wilcox, Rhonda, eds. Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2002, pp. 45-60. ISBN Rowman & Littlefield



The concept of a “queer reading” of a text is drawn from an experience of reader oppression and exclusion. A queer reading is constructed by a reader who, denied the obvious manifestation of homosexual desire, in a context in which heterosexual desire is normalized, seeks to identify the codes by which authors have indicated passionate relationships between same sex members of their texts of have created available metaphors through cross-species relationships. Such readings may be imposed on a heterosexual author with no such intentions, or they may be experienced interpretations of known (but closeted) gay authors and actors. The requirements for such a reading, however, are relatively simple: that two characters labeled as inaccessible to each other for cultural reasons be seen acting in a manner that may be interpreted as flirtatious, loving, passionate (in the platonic sense), or tense, and in the final analysis, it is the tension between the two characters that is most productive of queer readings. Such tension provides the widest range of encoded behavior to interpret, but, significantly, it also provides the tension, opposition, and antagonism that conventional romance plots demand: only where there is tension can there be real love. However, should attraction become overt, should the homosexual interest become blatant, a queer reading as such is no longer possible, as it depends for its structure on hidden and coded messages.

We can see this best in Xena: Warrior Princess. Although it was initially intended as Superwoman-style adventures for young girls combined with eye candy for the adolescent male, it quickly acquired a huge following among feminists and lesbians. Although some of this was simply the delight in two strong female characters, the rapid emergence of slash fiction on the Internet pointed to other reasons for its popularity. Slash fiction is fan fiction that posits a (usually gay) sexual relationship between the leading characters and is usually extremely explicit. The best known, and the oldest, is Kirk/Spock slash fiction. However, slash fiction is not, in and of itself, a queer reading. Kirk/Spock fiction is dominated by heterosexual women writers (Penley 479-500). Xena/Gabrielle slash is written by women who, in their bylines, suggest that they themselves are gay or bisexual. However, slash fiction relies on what cannot be shown on the screen. Xena/Gabrielle slash picked up on the self-chosen marginalization of the main characters, of their closeness, the opposition of their physical coding — tall, dark, and handsome; small, delicate, strawberry blond — and spun it into conventional romance (Helford 135-62). But, in addition, the series editors took the decision to play on the rumor, choosing to emphasize the coding, introducing more flirtatious looks, witticisms, and references to mutual love. What they did not do, in part because of their early evening broadcast position, was to make the relationship overt. This choice allowed them both to encourage the queer reading and to protect it by maintaining the hidden agenda on which it rests.

However, the test of a theory, whether in science of in the humanities, is whether we can imagine circumstances in which, all the obvious ingredients being present, the theory does not apply. If a queer reading is something genuine that responds to specific structures, then there must be circumstances in which it does not work and reasons why this is the case. Buffy, a show that depends heavily on the interrelationship between the characters and that has succeeded in maintaining high levels of emotional tension through its first several seasons, is one of the more obvious candidates for a queer reading. The primary characters are marginalized because of their occupation, the secondary characters (the vampires) as a consequence of their intrinsic natures. The extent to which the vampire hunters come to identify with the vampires by the end of season 4 and throughout season 5 provides an avenue for the queer theorist to explore. The relationships between characters such as Angel and Spike, Angel and Xander, Buffy and Faith, and, most recently, Spike and Riley all sustain the tension that provokes queer reading, and evidence of this can be found on numerous slash sites. However most queer readings (although not all) focus on the main protagonists in a show. It therefore seems sensible to examine the primary friendship that is presented: that between Buffy and Willow. What I intend to demonstrate in this chapter is how and where a queer reading is facilitated in the political relationship between Willow and Buffy but is deflected when we attempt a queer erotic reading of their partnership: I hope to prove the validity of the concept of the queer reading by demonstrating the circumstances in which is does not operate.

In her most recent book, To Believe in Women, Lillian Faderman asserts that for many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century feminists, heterosexuality threatened to imperil their autonomy, their personal career growth, and their ability to pursue the goal of enfranchisement. Needing to create supportive and stable emotional lives, and in many cases to achieve erotic fulfillment, these women found their primary relationships with other women, usually with other women dedicated to, if not always as active in, the same cause. Many of these relationships were monogamous, others were not, but their shared attribute was a belief that their quality surpassed and outlasted the heterosexual romances that they witnessed elsewhere. In addition, these connections bound these women into a supportive network that created the women’s movement as an ensemble campaign rather than the work of one lone hero(ine). This pattern operates within Buffy, structuring the relationships within the ensemble that is held together by the relationship between Buffy and Willow.

The ensemble as it exists at the end of season 4 is not the same structure as that created at the start of the series. The basic ensemble consists of Buffy, Giles her Watcher, and two equally weighted sidekicks, Willow and Xander. The relationship between Buffy and sidekicks is fairly straightforward: she fights vampires, and they provide friendship and people with whom Buffy is allowed to be truthful. While they may also assist in the actual slaying, and Willow’s computer skills and later her witchcraft are invaluable, it is their emotional support that is crucial to their permanent status. In narrative terms, they also serve as recipients for the explanatory exposition, but with their role-playing gamelike characteristics, the additional characters in Buffy are crucial to the plot in ways which the majority of the assistants (colloquially known as screamers) on the long-running British series Dr. Who were not. As Rhonda Wilcox pointed out in chapter 1 of this volume, the necessary activities of the sidekicks on Buffy’s behalf continually undercut the idea of the lone hero that the voice-over establishes in the show’s opening credits.

The remaining member of the initial ensemble is Giles. For all his archetypal English bumbling, Giles offers Buffy a father substitute, whose role seems to be to lay down the rules that Buffy, the average adolescent, will seek to test. Buffy’s struggles against Giles’s authority are both a resistance to patriarchy and a simple depiction of teenage rebellion: their importance in the formation of Buffy as an adult are crucial, and it is consequently significant that Buffy does not simply “mature” into an acceptance of Giles’s right-reasoning in contrast, for example, to the Angels in the 1970s series Charlie’s Angels, required to defer to Charlie’s judgment. Instead, by the end of season 3, Buffy has come to the conclusion that actually she does know better than either the Watchers’ Council or Giles, and by season 5 Giles’s role is much more advisory.

The remainder of the ensemble as it forms and dissolves over the seasons includes Angel, Oz, Cordelia, Jenny, Kendra (briefly), Spike, Faith, Anya, Riley, and Tara. Of these, Angel, Spike, Faith and Riley are linked primarily to Buffy. Three of them (the men) have sexual/emotional relationships with Buffy, and the relationships between Xander and Willow and Spike and Willow also generate sexual tension. Faith’s relationship with Buffy is also sexualized, but, in ways that I will discuss later, this possibility is left unstated. In contrast, Willow’s relationship with Buffy is specifically desexualized.

The structure of the basic ensemble is designed to place Buffy at centre stage; all attention within the ensemble is on her. However, Buffy’s place at the centre is not synonymous with autonomy and independence. Instead, the writers have constructed a matrix of interdependence and control that rests on relationships rather than rules.

As mere sidekicks, Xander and Willow, acting wholly within the usual paradigm of heroic fantasy, would be expected to reinforce the structures within which the hero is intended to develop. Instead, Xander’s and Willow’s roles are to subvert the structure within which Buffy operates. As Kendra (the first of the parallel slayers) points out, Buffy is supposed to have a secret identity: slayers are not supposed to have friends, and they are most certainly not supposed to have confessional buddies. Spike will demonstrate in season 4’s “The Yoko Factor” (4020) that there are good reasons for this, but equally he asserts that it has been the reason for Buffy’s longevity. The supportive roles also offer variety and complexity that ensure that Buffy’s sidekicks do not act simply to enhance Buffy’s autonomy. Instead, they place constraints on her behavior and demands on her emotions.

Because it is apparently unsexual, Willow’s support is often presented as unconditional, an appearance enhanced by Willow’s little-girl presentation until midway through the fourth season. But explicit statements are misleading, and Willow, even in the earliest episodes, clearly gains self-esteem from her contribution to matters of real import on the basis of talents that usually have little value in the teenage world. What Buffy does for Willow is to give her a validation that, as an intellectual, she would normally anticipate only in adulthood. This continuously places a demand on Buffy that she operate within a team for their psychological benefit as well as hers, even where teamwork may be inappropriate or dangerous, and that she operate in ways that make use of her comrade’s skills. While it is clear that in the long term this enhances Buffy’s efficiency, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is at the expense of her emotional and professional autonomy. Buffy’s affection for Willow means that at times she may choose to protect Willow (and others) rather than do her duty. This, of course, all adds tension to the scripts.

In seasons 1 and 2, Xander Harris/s motives are explicitly, if confusedly, sexual: he wishes a romantic or physical relationship with Buffy. However, given his status as teenager and his frequently unpleasant sexual experiences (“Teacher’s Pet,” 1004; “Inca Mummy Girl,” 2004), it is also possible to view Xander’s continued interest in Buffy long after she has become clearly unavailable as stemming from his desire for validation, as both a man and a person. (It is thus ironic that it will be Xander who tries to teach Anya in season 4 that masculinity is not only about sex [“Fear, Itself,” 4004].) In the context in which we are discussing Xander here, however, this relationship works to provide Buffy with an antilove interest that places her within a heterosocial matrix that later contributes to the denial of either a feminist political reading of the text or a queer reading of its relationships.

We can see this better if we consider the role of Giles. That he and not her mother is in control of Buffy’s behavior undercuts the potentially powerful prime-time message that here is a successful single-mother/daughter relationship and contributes to a message that only cross-sex networks are stable. At the end of season 3 and in season 4, Giles’s changed status offers opportunities for the series’ writers to explore a cross-generational friendship. Up to a point, they have achieved this, but there is still a strong sense of Giles as scout master, with the Scooby Gang congregating in his house/hut. Undercutting this, however, is a growing sexual tension between Giles and Buffy, triggered by Giles’s brief involvement with her mother, Joyce, in “Band Candy” early in season 3. Buffy’s reaction to Giles’s involvement with her mother is a complex mixture of adolescent disgust that adults actually have sex and betrayal that he has had a relationship behind her back. This is reinforced by the comparative unimportance of Giles’s second girlfriend, Olivia, coupled with Buffy’s reaction to discovering them together, and Buffy’s continued tendency to take problems to him and not to Riley. While any development of this relationship is probably precluded by Giles’s previous involvement with Joyce, it is significant in the network of men with which Buffy surrounds herself and to the sense that despite the importance of Willow to the show’s emotional structure, Buffy’s emotional well-being is usually (although not always) depicted as resting on male approval. We need to consider why this is the case.

Central to this chapter is my belief that Buffy’s relationship matrix is primarily constructed on a heterosocial model that, whatever her relationship with Willow, is expected to take precedence. Heterosociality is the assumption that one’s primary affiliations and loyalties cross the sex divide (and I specifically mean sex: genitals are the signifiers here) and that socialization and friendship should take place predominantly in mixed-sex groups. Although heterosociality need not have consequences for ideologies of gender and sex, the historical experience has been that it does. In a heterosocial model it becomes more important, not less, to maintain the gender divide: single sexed groups may come under suspicion of sexual or political deviancy, and heterosociality may be fostered as a means to undercut other types of behavior. For example, the American temperance movement promoted heterosociality as a means to control men’s drinking, while psychologists in the 1920’s and 1930’s promoted coeducation and family membership in country clubs because they believed single-sexed congregation encouraged lesbian (and political) activity in women. Ritualized dating patterns at a young age become signifiers of social normality and acceptance. However, heterosociality as practiced in any culture in which one sex is still more powerful than the other is unlikely to operate in any evenhanded manner, and deviation from it is specifically politicized: thus, men congregating as men, in football clubs or in boardrooms, is framed as natural, while women congregating as women to gain access to said football clubs or boardrooms is considered political. While women congregating with men may gain status from their affiliation with the more powerful group, a man who spends much of his time with women in social rather than sexual situations, as Xander does, may actually sacrifice status. Cordelia’s disregard of first Xander and then Doyle (Angel, season 1), both men who wish to be friends with women, seems to reinforce the point: their association with women whom they are not dating reduces their manhood rather than enhancing it.

At first sight this may seem peripheral to the discussion in this chapter, but it is easy for American audiences to remain oblivious to the extreme heterosocial nature of U.S. teen programming and to teen socialization in general. Britain, which on the surface strongly resembles the United States, has a much stronger pattern of homosocial behavior, reinforced by the continued prevalence of single-sex education (many school catchment areas have one boys’, one girls’, and one coed high school). Some co-ed schools in the United Kingdom still retain separate playgrounds. The heterosocial social structure and dating patterns that are depicted in Buffy are the norm only within this cultural setting, and it is their existence as “the norm” that allows our attention to be deflected from the degree to which they create a matrix that operates to deny Buffy the full potential of her relationship with Willow that a superficial analysis of the situation might expect.

Lillian Faderman’s main argument is that, for the active woman, heterosexuality is a trap and a lure, that no matter how supportive the man, heterosexual relationships take a woman’s attention away from her business. Even given that Buffy is unlikely to face compulsory maternity, Faderman’s thesis appears to have substance. On the surface, Buffy’s relationship with Willow perfectly matches Faderman’s outline of the active, public campaigner with her female partner in the background providing material and emotional support. The history of female friendship in television is often rather less positive, and it is this context that makes the Buffy/Willow friendship feel unusual. The female friend in sitcoms has continually maintained an edge of ambiguity. Only when both friends are safely married (and in a predivorce television world such as in I Love Lucy) is a female television friendship made up of consistent loyalty and positive reinforcement; otherwise, female friendships on television have traditionally been full of rivalries and spitefulness (see Wilcox, “Lois’s Locks” 106-11). Even Kate and Allie, on the show of the same name, frequently competed for male attention (despite a memorable episode in which they posed as a lesbian couple to classify as a “family” under the terms of their rent agreement), while Cagney and Lacey rested in part on both characters’ envying the other’s lifestyle from the safe vantage point of the outside. And Friends relies in part for its humor on the amused contempt of the characters for Phoebe, the “kooky” character who never gets a lasting romance. What Sharon Thompson (228-29) calls girl fearing and girl hating, depicted usually as competition for men or for status, has all too frequently structured the homosocial relationships depicted in programs such as Beverly Hills 90210 and the films Heathers (1989) and Clueless (1995).

It is relatively easy to see the ways in which the writers could have chosen this route. Alyson Hannigan, with her winsome charm and, as Willow, her nerdish manner, could have been preselected to play the loveless but funny best friend against whom Buffy’s status is measured. Instead, she is core to the friendship structure, her “weirdness” is deliberately displayed in attractive ways, and she experiences successful romance twice. But this is not to say that she is allowed to take the central role in the support team. While Willow may be operating on a homosocial model that may be subject to a queer reading (something to which I will return later), Buffy is not. One consequence is that while to the outsider Willow may seem central, the one character on whom Buffy absolutely depends, Buffy is less clear on this.

The relationship between Buffy and Willow begins with a very clear sense that Buffy is the dependent component. As the new girl in town, she needs both he friendship and the access route into high school society that Willow provides. Under normal circumstances, however, Buffy might have abandoned Willow. Buffy is cheerleader material, meant to hang out with the likes of Cordelia. That she does not is because her other activities mark her out as “weird,” and the rumors about her previous school life rapidly reach the ears of the in-crowd. Buffy might yet have been reincorporated into the high school clique (“Reptile Boy,” 2005), except that she refuses to conform to their requirements and chooses Willow and Xander instead. However, before we take this as a complete change of heart, we should be clear that had Buffy reentered the clique, it would probably have been as Cordelia’s competitor, not follower. Buffy’s choices, as Faith is aware, are in part about retaining the focus of attention (“Consequences,” 3015; “Enemies,” 3017; “The Prom,” 3020; “Who Are You?” 4016); Buffy the clique leader becomes Buffy the gang leader — the shift is only marginal. Thus Buffy’s friendship with Willow is structured from the beginning around the model of leader and acolyte, and in all such structures the viability of the friendship rests on the more dominant partner. Willow continually reflects her awareness of this in her hesitancy within the relationship, which, despite her own resistance against this (“I am not your sidekick,” she says in “Fear Itself,” 4004), is never fully resolved, even after the balance of power begins to shift in season 4. That Willow structures the friendship around Buffy’s “need” for her and for her skills remains a weak point that Spike is able to exploit at the end of season 4. Only in season 5, bolstered by her relationship with Tara and with Dawn, Buffy’s virtual sister, does she accept her wider value to the ensemble.

According to Faderman’s thesis, Buffy ought to gain more from Willow’s support than from Angel’s, and with only a few exceptions this seems to be true. Although Buffy, on a number of occasions, must redirect her activities in order to rescue Willow (“I Robot, You Jane,” 1008; “Phases,” 2015; “Lovers Walk,” 3008), this carries with it less of the emotional confusion that rescue of Angel or Riley does. In part this is because Buffy is not dating Willow, but is also because when rescuing Willow, Buffy fulfills the role of shining knight without conflict, constantly reinforcing both the importance of her work and her sense of competence. When she attempts this role with her male lovers, the thrill of rescue is too often diminished by their sulky attempts to resist the realization that they have been rescued by a woman (Xander, too, fits this mold until season 4). With Riley and the Initiative, there is the further sense that she might be superfluous, at least until Adam comes on the scene.

However it is Willow to whom Buffy confesses and explores her loves, and although Willow expresses her doubts over the wisdom of dating a vampire, her characteristic hesitancy over proffering advice is more supportive of the development of emotional autonomy than are Giles’s words. Why then am I suggesting that this friendship is flawed? The potential for Buffy to use Willow as her primary support is undermined by her relationship with the men in her life: Giles, Angel, and Riley. Each of these supplants Willow for a period of time, reasserting the old canard that female friends are those whom a woman sees between boyfriends. And this alteration in friendship is entirely Buffy’s choice. Interestingly, we can best see this if we examine the parallels between Buffy and Cordelia.

Roz Kaveney points out that Cordelia is what Buffy was. In “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” (1011), Buffy’s acceptance and forgiveness of her earlier self rests in part on an accounting of Cordelia’s behavior: Cordelia is spiteful, Buffy left it behind when she first became the Slayer; Cordelia is obsessed with clothes, while Buffy, although still very much a clothes junkie (“The Freshman,” 4001), has discovered that leather armor goes with anything. Cordelia organizes cliques: Buffy’s gang is inclusive and protective. However, shaping and underpinning all of Cordelia’s behavior is that thread of female misogyny that Sharon Thompson identifies in girl fearers/girl haters: for one reason or another, these are young women who have had very little positive experience of friendship with women and whose friendships with women are constructed around status seeking and competition in a game in which points are scored through the attraction of the male gaze: in a paradigm in which women are competitors, men, ironically, are more to be trusted. The girl fearer/hater, on discovering her man’s infidelity, is much more likely to attack the new girlfriend than her man. Betrayed by yet another woman, she is also more likely to turn to another man for support than to a woman. Cordelia fits the picture perfectly: competitive and bitchy to other women, she is a self-declared daddy’s girl, dating men for status (and drawing Buffy into her social circle only because she needs her for a high-status double date [“Reptile Boy,” 2005]), despising herself for her genuine attraction to the low-status Xander, but willing to tell him, when she has told no one else, of her father’s bankruptcy. In L.Al (Angel), she turns to Doyle and then to Wesley and Angel for support in a milieu in which again her female friends (whom we mainly see at parties) are competitors, not supporters. In Thomson’s construct, girl fearers/girl haters do not simply dislike the women around them; they dislike and dismiss all women as a class and prefer to seek security from men. Thus, despite Willow’s occasional cattiness toward Cordelia, Willow’s dislike of most of her immediate female peers, and her reliance n Giles and Xander, Willow does not fit this category. When Willow searches for validation, her mentors include Jenny Calendar, the computer teacher, and Buffy herself. Later she will be both mentor and mentored by Tara, in addition to the support she offers Dawn. We might expect that Buffy, having shucked off much of the most obvious of Cordelia’s behaviors, would also have rejected the girl-hater paradigm that Thompson outlines; instead, despite the support and nurturing that Willow offers, Buffy remains fixated on receiving validation from men.

Buffy’s behavior in heterosexual relationships is constructed from a complex mix of deference and assertion but begins with her liking for very large men. This “choice” is in part television convention: modern heroes are large and spend their lives working out. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s petite build means it is quote probable that both the character and the writers are enjoying several moments of visual irony, enjoying the image of small weak female that belies the fact that she could easily kill her lovers. Its effect, however, is to create a physical dynamic in which Buffy’s physical responses in her lovers can seem quite childlike. That this is a visual affect, and that the writers are fully aware of it, is made clear and exploited in “Who Are You?” when it is Faith, inside Buffy’s body, who beds Riley, in the process replicating some of the same moves with an aggressive mockery of Buffy’s childlikeness. With Faith’s body language but Buffy’s physical presence, the writers were able to create the image of a child out of control, eliciting sympathy for a problematic character. With Buffy, however, once the irony is accepted, we are still left with a convention in which strong women seek out stronger men and are then disappointed when tis strength proves, as it does in very physical ways with Riley, to be illusory. Further, Buffy’s very childlikeness is eroticized, in marked contrast to the continued deeroticization of Willow even after she becomes sexually active. Although Willow is always presented as sexually attractive, and as Vamp Willow Alyson Hannigan is also very sexy, Willow, rather than Hannigan, is the pure child, even while that description is usually reserved for Buffy. While Willow’s sexuality is muted by its cuddliness, signified by her choice of pink, of cuddly sweaters and dungarees, Buffy’s childlikeness is displayed by her choice of low-cut tops as school wear.

Buffy’s emotional dependence on men exists independently of issues of Slayerdom: she plans and executes most of the missions regardless of whether Angel or Riley is in tow. But Buffy appears wholly willing to abdicate control of her emotional life, first to Giles, who wishes she did not have one; then to Angel, who insists that for her sake he leave; and finally to Riley, who is the one to decide (admittedly with the help of Jonathan [“Superstar,” 4017]) when they make up and how, after the breach over Faith, later concluding their relationship with an ultimatum. Apparent attempts at asserting autonomy, the break from Giles and the patriarchal Watchers’ Council (there are at least three women watchers, but we meet only one), actually play out as a mere exchange of one male for another, and the end of her relationship with Riley is framed as her failure of maturity, rather than his insistence that she remains immature and dependent.

By season 4, Willow is both a hacker and a witch, a powerful combination, and is in a relationship with Oz that she and he have shaped to provide her with considerably more emotional autonomy than Buffy experiences. While Angel displaces Willow as Buffy’s best buddy, in that it is Angel who receives her emotional confidences, Oz does not displace Buffy from Willow’s affections, and her resulting confidence changes the manner in which Willow relates to Buffy. While still keen to please, Willow is less eager for approval from her heroine. Willow has greater ease with the university experience: not simply the academic side, which might be expected, but also the social and fashion environments. Willow has the confidence to withdraw from a Wicca group she regards as inane and to experiment with an original approach to dress, while Buffy looks as high school as ever and appears to have made no new friend by the end of season 4. In comparison to Willow, Buffy has little emotional support and is poorly equipped to accept the full value of the support that Willow offers. Combined with Buffy’s tendency to rely on authority figures despite her repeated experiences of betrayal by the Watchers’ Council, Giles, and even her mother, her need for male validation and that Willow’s emotional intelligence is rather better established. When Oz leaves, Willow finds herself a new life. When Buffy loses Angel, she turns to Parker, and when she loses him, she is not truly consoled until she becomes involved with Riley. This pattern of dependence on masculine authority and emotional support also explains why Buffy is so smitten with both the Initiative and Maggie Walsh (possibly, but not necessarily, a comment on Joss Whedon’s residence in the United Kingdom in the 1980’s, when Margaret “Maggie” Thatcher reigned supreme, surrounded by her bevy of adoring males), all of whom replay her experience of authority figures, of apparent emotional need, and of betrayal. Yet it is clear that the writers have, to some degree, recognized these behaviors as cultural constructs: in the final analysis, Cave-Buffy shucks off sociocultural behavioral patterns and hits Parker firmly over the head with a stick (“Beer Bad,” 4005).

The parental element to heterosexual relationships is not exclusive to Buffy: given differences of class and personal experience for which Thompson allows, Faith acts within a comparable, girl-hater/girl-fearer paradigm, something that helps explain why Faith is incapable of trusting Buffy but created her own “Watcher” father figure in the person of the Mayor and was later willing to turn to Angel for help. Elsewhere, even given that Oz leaves after killing Veruca, his decision to disappear denies Willow agency. When Oz returns, we see the same pattern. He decides that the best thing he can do for Willow is to leave. That her emotional life is not a hostage to fortune rests entirely on Tara’s willingness for Willow to make the best decision for herself, although this too is problematic. While it could be argued that Oz simply anticipates the decision he thinks Willow will make, the authors fail to make clear that Tara is not second best. The blowing out of the candle (in “New Moon Rising,” 4019) may indicate a happy ending, but that is not the same as allowing Willow full choice. If anything, it replicates the ambiguity and male control of the similarly “happy” ending of Casablanca.

The continual roll call of Buffy’s male supporters and her need for their validation undermines the potential for a queer reading of Buffy’s relationship with Willow. This, however, is the case only if we ignore Willow’s experience of the situation. If we focus on Willow instead of Buffy, it is clear that although Buffy refuses the reinforcement that Willow can offer, Willow gains enormously from her relationship with Buffy.

The course of Willow’s relationship with Buffy, as discussed earlier, is outlined in part by the development of skills that she can offer to the team. That the first of these skills, the ability to manipulate computer data and networks, is one she already has is crucial to her empowerment. Willow’s involvement with Buffy allows her to relate an essentially “nerdish” skill to a “real”-world scenario. And instead of being isolating, Willow becomes Buffy’s connection to the world of ordinariness. Willow, previously a school freak, becomes a route to normality. This growth in Willow’s physical confidence is displayed not through a normalization of her attire but through an extension of Willow’s taste beyond the margins of fashion.

Willow’s development is the side of the homosocial partnership that Faderman either dismisses or does not necessarily understand. Faderman focuses almost entirely on the public half of the feminist partnerships she observes. That it might well be the supportive member of the same-sex partnership who stands most to gain does not occur to her. This becomes clearer if we stop assuming that less public is equivalent to fewer opportunities. Much of what Willow does is essentially gendered “male”: this may in fact be why the writers introduced the witchcraft, as a way to regender Willow and to pick up on the association of witchcraft with female sexuality, with power, and with lesbianism. Given a relationship with a man with equivalent interests, it is hard to imagine the hesitant, unconfident Willow sustaining her edge. When we first meet Oz, he too is technically oriented, but his attempts to assist her are quickly rebuffed as they threaten Willow’s status within the gang. Very quickly, this side of his character is hidden by the writers and subsumed into his musicianship. The threat that Oz represents, however, highlights the degree to which Willow has gained from her association with Buffy. What Willow’s situation suggests is that a same-sex bonding can open opportunities for and empower the “domestic” partner as much as it empowers the “public” partner.

However, while Willow gains enormously from her association with Buffy, it is at a price. Kate Fillion (2-5) points out in her analysis of the development of the talents within the girl friendships that the weaker party often develops skills that the stronger feels she should have or that benefit the stronger of the two. In these terms we can see Willow’s development as directed towards areas that benefit Buffy. Further, Willow’s attempt to dress and act differently at various points in the show (including her decision to sleep with Oz) are all in part an effort to make her a worthy companion to the Slayer and thus “deserve” her love. In order to maintain her support of Buffy, she follows her to a university far inferior to the more obvious choices for one of her abilities: greater love hath no woman than that she give up MIT (season 2) or Oxford (season 3) for her friend. That this is framed in terms of “exploring opportunities for witchcraft” is problematic. If this is a world in which magic works, then presumably Oxford would have been just as suitable a venue (particularly given the inadequacy of UC Sunnydale’s Wicca group). And both the episode “Anne” and the entire Angel series make it clear that demonic threats are not limited to Sunnydale. That Willow’s choice of UC Sunnydale does not completely undermine her is due entirely to her greater social success at the university relative to Buffy. What made Willow weird in high school establishes her as interesting in the new setting. In contrast, Buffy’s relative emotional immaturity and relentlessly high school profile (both Spike and Faith are absolutely right about this) set her up for a number of problems. Again tracking Fillion’s paradigm, until Spike intervenes, it is Buffy as much as Willow who feels the distance growing in the friendship. When Buffy is suffering the effects of Parker, her largest problem is that Willow is no longer waiting patiently at home.

By the end of season 3, if a queer reading of the text is possible, the scenario is set for a Buffy/Willow romance. Buffy’s experience with Parker in the first episodes might make her open for something new, and Oz is dispatched in such a way that Willow’s attention is drawn not just to the extent to which he shaped her life and made her choices for her but also to how little she actually learned from him, either intellectually or emotionally. Oz leaves an emotional hole, but there is no sense that what Willow actually does with her time is changed, in the way it would be if she broke with Buffy. However, the writers do not choose the Buffy/Willow route. Instead, Buffy becomes involved with the most assertively “normal” male they can think up (see the cowboy scene in “Restless,” 4022), and Willow stays single until she meets Tara. In the meantime the opportunity for a lesbian romance is deflected, and Buffy once again pulls away from Willow looking first to Riley and then to the Initiative for physical backup, and is comprehensively betrayed, this time by a strong female role model, Maggie Walsh. Buffy recapitulations the lesson: support from men and from women with power comes at a price, that is, her physical and emotional subservience. Only with Willow can Buffy maintain anything like equality.

In the relationship between Willow and Buffy, we are offered a potentially subversive take on the romance genre, not simply because a lesbian attachment may be considered but because the friendship as it develops cuts across the contemporary romantic fiction trope, rejecting the tension that characterizes both conventional romance and queer readings. This helps explain why there are relatively few examples of Buffy/Willow slash fiction [relative to the number relating to Angel/Xander or Willow/Cordelia, for example). A main romantic fiction trope requires the lovers to begin as antagonists. The trope is reinforced by the tendency of protagonists to have little or nothing in common: attraction is the only common bond. The writers of the show, however, have chosen to employ three principal routes to romance: antagonism, lack of common interest, and compatibility of interest. The antagonist attraction is Xander’s principal route into relationships with Cordelia, Faith (briefly), and Anya. That the writers chose Xander for this role suggests that this is type of relationship they believe to be most immature. The “little in common” describes Willow’s relationship with Oz because, despite a general nonmaterialist worldview, Oz’s initial advertised interest in computers is allowed to slide. But it does not describe her relationship with Tara. The final arrangement, in which the protagonists share common interests, is depicted in Giles and Jenny, Willow and Tara, and Buffy with Angel and Riley. The indication is that these are more mature relationships, although Buffy’s behavior, as I outlined previously, leads to some doubt, and this seems deliberate. Complementarity, rather than sizzling attraction, is the core of the mature relationship. However, if the writers were to follow this wholly, this should lead Buffy to Willow (the Xander relationship is excluded by his relative intellectual inferiority). The slow-growth relationship we are shown as a sign of maturity is strongest between these two.

The potential for a Buffy/Willow relationship is neutralized in part by the desexualization of Willow in both appearance and behavior. Willow’s dress continuously codes her as young, cuddly and innocent. The preference for pinks and reds seems to infantilize her (only as Vampire Willow is the red placed against black). While such fashion “rules” are no longer as respected as they once were, it remains the case that for four seasons we never see Willow in the greens, blacks, or purples that one might associate with the “sexy” redhead. Much of Willow’s attractiveness to Spike (“Lovers Walk,” 3008; “The Initiative,”4007) seems to be based on this induced innocence. Further, both Willow and Tara have so far been coded neutrally. This is clearly not to be a butch-femme relationship, and for that mercy we must be heartily grateful: apart from its sheer mundanity, it would have allowed the script writers to have depicted Willow as either seduced or experimenter – “Not a proper lesbian” in other words — although so far no one has actually said the “L” word. The deeroticization is extended by the casting of Amber Benson as Tara, who is superficially very like Willow. While there is an argument for both common interests and mirroring here, it deprives the scenes of the antagonistic tension usually regarded as essential to conventional romance and eroticism and that do frame at leas the early days of all Buffy’s, Xander’s, and Giles’s romantic entanglements. This, therefore, is the lesbian as narcissist, reminiscent of fin de siècle paintings in which two women, posed to suggest a mirror image, gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes (Creed 99). On the one hand, this is lesbianism for the male gaze; on the other hand, there is a clear sense that the producers were attempting to avoid this route, but its very openness and innocence desexualizes and removes the erotic tension crucial to a queer reading of the text.

If Willow’s clothing downplays her sexuality, so too does her behavior. Although we are given a nice hint of future change in the overt sexualization and queering of Vamp Willow in “Doppelgangland” (3016), the sexualized behavior she exhibits does not become a feature of Willow’s relationship with Tara. While Buffy exhibits overtly sexual behavior, Willow’s romances are almost always depicted in terms of cuddles (until season 5, when she is allowed a little more petting). Her lovemaking with Oz is depicted off screen, and with Tara magic and rituals become substitute for romantic and sexual tension. The blowing out of the candle at the end of “New Moon Rising” (4019), while rather touching, is horribly familiar to those of us who remember the classic lines at the end of chapter 21 of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness: “And that night, they were not parted.” The only exception, and a notable one, to this deeroticization is the scene in which Willow paints Sappho’s poem “Ode to Aphrodite” on Tara’s back, and it may well be that as the series becomes more consistently aimed at the adult market, this eroticization will develop. But at the moment, Willow’s relationship with Tara, in addition to undercutting a queer reading of the Buffy/Willow relationship, actually undercuts a queer reading of Willow at all, first by neutralizing her sexuality and then by rechanneling thoughts of lesbian relationships in a safe direction.

As Willow matures, Buffy stays essentially the same person; Buffy continues to look to male figures for emotional support when they are available but uses Willow to “fill in” when her relationships become difficult. Willow, however, takes the gained confidence and employs it in the attraction of the painfully shy Tara, in which she repeats, in reverse, the primary dynamic of her relationship with Buffy. As Willow became more assertive in Buffy’s presence, and with Buffy’s support, so Tara stutters less either when with Willow or when acting in ways that support Willow. By the middle of the season, the relationship between Willow and Buffy appears much more equal, despite Willow’s characteristically hesitant mode of speech. Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that Buffy does not prize equality in emotional relationships.

The real winner in this situation is Willow, and to this degree the relationship between Buffy and Willow supports a queer reading within the paradigm that Faderman outlines. Buffy fails to exploit the supportive possibilities of this relationship, but it becomes the foundation of an empowered Willow and is eventually displaced onto her relationship with Tara at the same time as this relationship undercuts any attempt to read an erotic relationship into the Buffy/Willow dynamic.

It is not possible, in the end, to sustain a queer reading of the Buffy/Willow relationship, but this does not obviate the possibilities of a queer reading of the overall text. This reading, I suspect, is to be found instead in the Buffy/Faith dynamic, which clearly fits the model of antagonistic romance much more closely than the Willow/Buffy structure ever could. That faith does not have a sexual relationship with Buffy is due primarily to the target audience, but it fails to obscure what Roz Kaveney has described as the mirroring relationship in which Faith, at least, is deeply involved in attempting to comprehend, while fiercely resenting, the way in which Buffy’s mind and emotions operate. Faith is Buffy without restraint and inhibitions. The romance structure is reinforced by the physical mirroring of Buffy and Faith. Faith is the dark, boyish, and richly sexual figure juxtaposed against Buffy’s fair, feminine, and oddly pure sexuality. In contrast, while she may resent it bitterly, Willow can only ever be a foil: both her looks and her skills operate as Buffy’s backdrop rather than as her match. If Willow wishes to reject her sidekick status, she must move out of Buffy’s shadow in other directions, which, in season 5, she is doing very successfully. Willow’s development as a character acts within the political paradigm that Faderman has described, but as the quieter and more private member of the partnership, she is the one who gains most because she is the one who recognizes the value of the relationship. What Faderman did not understand was the possibility of the private partner becoming the public one in other contexts and applying the confidence thus gained. But despite the possibility of this political queer reading, the dynamics of the romance trope, the structure of heterosociality in which Buffy is embroiled, the writers’ construction of a hetersocial ensemble, and Buffy’s need for male validation coalesce to reduce the possibilities for a romantic/erotic queer reading of the Buffy/Willow relationship.



Works Cited

Penley, Constance, “Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the study of popular culture”, Cultural Studies ed. Lawrence Grossberg, cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 479-500.

Helford, Elyce Rae, “Feminism, Queer Studies and the Sexual Politics of Xena: Warrior Princess”, in Helford, Elyce Rae, Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, pp. 135-162.

Faderman, Lillian, To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America — a History. Boston: Houhgton-Mifflin, 2002.

Wilcox. Rhonda, Essay, “Who Died and Made Her the Boss? Patterns of Mortality in Buffy” Fighting the Forces, chapter 1 (see kindle edition).

Wilcox, Rhonda, “Lois’s Locks: Trust and Representation in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”, in Helford, Elyce Rae, Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, 106-11.

Kaveney, Roz, Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical Companion to Buffy and Angel, London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2001.

I loved Third Rock from the Sun, but as the series progressed I became ever more uneasy. The early promise of a liberating estrangement from the assumptions of the body and of human heteronormativity fizzled. I still like it, but in the way you like problematic things. The article itself came out of conversations with Nicole Matthews, then at Liverpool John Moores about how humour can be subversive but in the nature of its subversion can also undermine the subversion. On a separate note, this article was my final venture into TV studies. I have always concentrated on a close reading approach coupled with the ‘big data’ approach common to historians, and it just took too much time to watch every episode of the series.



From Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television, ed. Elyce Helford. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford, 2000, pp. 41-60.



The Cartesian Novum of Third Rock from the Sun

Gendering Human Bodies and Alien Minds

Nicole Matthews and Farah Mendlesohn



In the opening sequence of the pilot episode of Third Rock from the Sun (“Brains and Eggs”), four alien visitors to Earth sit in a car discovering the peculiarities of the human forms to which they have been assigned. For these sapients, the body is literally not linked with the mind and the mind is not a product of human physiology. Instead, their bodies are uncharted territory that they must learn to control or that alternatively, they will be controlled by. From this very first episode, too, it is the female body — in particular, the security officer’s breasts — that seem particularly odd to these alien minds. Sexed bodies and gendered identities are from these beginnings flagged as central to the playing out of the show’s underpinning idea.

From this moment the show’s creators expect us to understand that the central paradigm, or novum, of this piece of science fiction television is that the mind and body are inherently separate. For our resident aliens, the body and mind are entirely different entities, and the disjunction between alien minds and human bodies provides much of the show’s comedy. Here we find a convergence between the show’s basic premise and the dualism of mind and body that has been fundamental to Western understandings of the self since Descartes. Third Rock’s novum — the show’s central science fiction idea — echoes Cartesian assumptions about the separation (and hierarchy) of mind and body. This convergence would, on its own, be intriguing enough for feminist analysis. But the creators of Third Rock are also peddling an ambiguous message about the nature of gender. This ambiguity might seem to allow for polysemous, or multiple readings, of this show and points to the care with which the researcher needs to approach programs that might appear at first to be feminist in rhetoric and theme.

The separation of mind and (sexed) body in Third Rock allows the show to point up the artifice and absurdity of many conventions of gender. On numerous occasions, the show takes issue with the idea that particular kinds of sexed bodies naturally lead to appropriately feminine or masculine behavior. In particular the character of Sally, the crew’s warrior, bears out the assertions of many first-wave feminist that “ownership” of a female body need not prevent women’s engagement with a whole range of activities such as fixing a car, playing with guns, or hitting men. Third Rock also demonstrates some of the reasons for the recent popularity within feminist theory of an understanding of gender identity as performed.12 In place, of an essentialist view of femininity and masculinity as naturally inhering in sexed bodies, Third Rock often appears to be presenting gender as performed. As aliens the crew of Third Rock is shown to be quite deliberately, if ineptly, acting out familial and gender roles. The defamiliarization of femininity that Sally’s engagement with womanhood provides underscores the way that many women experience femininty as a drag performance — a deliberate acting out through appropriate costumes and gestures of a female role. However, we will argue that the show also indicates some of the problems of a performative view of gender. The direction of our argument is signaled in the comic moment with which we started this chapter.

Of the four aliens in the car, only three fully enter the ideological battlegrounds of gender: the high commander, Dick, as he learns to be a patriarch and a lover; Sally, the security officer, who plays the role of Dick’s sister; and the information officer, Tommy, passed off as Dick’s son, who is quite literally learning to be a man as he negotiates puberty. Harry, who pretends to be Dick’s younger brother, is the fool, usually presented as either asexual or the victim of others’ predatory advances. However, as the show proceeds through the second and third season, the performances of masculinity required of Tommy and Dick become sidelined, while Sally comes into focus as the character most vividly wrestling with a sexed body: just as in the car in the pilot episode, the female body comes to represent embodiment itself.


Performances of Gender.

One of the pleasures of Third Rock springs from the defamiliarization of the constrictions of gender that the novum of the show provides. The alien characters are often confused by the absurdity of injustice of gender roles, articulating what might be interpreted as radical and socialist feminist points of view. For instance, in the aptly named episode “I Enjoy Being Dick” (season one), Sally makes an observation about the servile nature of women’s paid and unpaid work.


Dick: Sally, is there anything you’d like to tell me, as a woman, because I think I’m enlightened enough now to hear it.

Sally: Well, men are always bossing you around, no one ever says thank you, and you’re expected to clean up after everyone.

Dick: Are you talking about being a woman or a waitress?

Sally: Waitress, woman, same thing.


Along a similar line, Sally later comes out with an insight that might have been drawn from Gayle Rubin’s critical account of women as a commodity for exchange between men (201). In the episode “Post Natal Dick” (season one), when Dick is explaining to Sally the moment in a wedding ceremony when the bride is being given away, she burst out, rather in the vein of feminist critiques of marriage, “Excuse me, given away? Like an object? As in free girl with every large fries?”

As we will argue later, it would be a mistake to overgeneralize from these moments of critique: neither Sally nor the show as a whole is consistent in advocating the point of view of any variant of feminism. If the producers wish to maintain a wide audience base, they need to play to feminists, antifeminists, and the merely indifferent. So, despite her protestations at the formalities of wedding ceremonies, in the season two episode “A Dick on One Knee”, for instance, Sally reveals herself eager to enjoy the prerogative of a large and expensive wedding. What these protofeminist remarks do point out is that in attempting to fathom the depths of the human sex/gender system, the aliens demonstrate that being male or female is not just a matter of inhabiting the appropriate kind of body, but also consists of acting in manly or womanly ways. This representation of gender as a performance offers a more systematic way in which the show picks up on recent feminist understandings of gender.

Throughout the three seasons of the show, the alien crew members are shown quite explicitly trying to work out how to do this, looking to their neighbors, workmates, and partners for instructions. However, it is important to be aware that in pursuing the notion of gender as performance, the producers are acknowledging the multiplicity of performances that are available. Although Dick will settle, eventually, for some form of the male college professor type, he first has the opportunity to try other modes of masculinity on for size. In “Big Angry Dick” (season one), the crew members study their neighbors, the Mullers. Dick remarks to Frank Muller, “We’re so fascinated by you. We’ve never met someone of your economic class before!” This blue-collar couple is employed as an exemplar of masculinity and femininity by the Solomons: Dick “proves” his masculinity by discussing ball-bearings and fighting with Frank, while Sally is ordered (by Dick) to demonstrate her femininity by learning to cook from Frank’s wife, not dignified with a name of her own.

Tommy and Dick are also given some help in performing appropriate gender roles from the directions, respectively, of August (Tommy’s sometimes girlfriend) and Dick’s partner, Mary Albright. Through his courtship of Mary, Dick learns that what Mary seems to want (despite a momentary aberration when she falls for an evil replacement of Dick sent by the Big Giant Head, who seeks to woo her through dominance and a lot of tango) is not adult manliness, but a form of boyishness that can be reduced to child-like simplicity and emotional dependence. In this environment Dick “performs” the childish man who wants to be mothered. In a similar fashion. Tommy’s performance of gender is shown to be shaped by August. In “Dick Behaving Badly” (season two), Dick responds to comments that he is under Mary’s thumb by announcing that he is going to fight her.


Dick: She’ll just have to accept it. Because I’m the man. I’m stronger than she is. I have a larger cranium. I’m far more likely to go to prison. I’m the man! Now if I can just find someone to teach me to act like one […] Tommy!

Sally: [laughing] I’m sorry but before you teach him how to be a man, shouldn’t you get August’s permission first?

Tommy: [looking disgruntled] She told me not to call her ‘til after dinner


The inference is that manliness is something that women permit. If men act like brutes, it is because women wish them to do so. While masculinity is represented as performative here, it is women who are seen as responsible for generating this kind of masculinity, as demonstrated most vividly by Mary’s enthusiastic response to evil-Dick in the episode “See Dick Run” (season one). Similarly, in “Assault with a Deadly Dick” (season one) Tommy is fed up trying to meet August’s fluctuating expectations.


Tommy: If that redefines the parameters of our relationship [mimicking her style] you’re just going to have to accept me for who I am.

August: [looks puzzled and then shocked, and then smiles] You know, I kind of like it when you’re assertive like this?

Tommy: You do?

August: But not all the time.

Tommy: Well, how often do you think I should be assertive?

August: If I told you that…

Tommy: Ok, ok, I’ll figure it out — is now a good time?

August: Sure

Tommy: Come on then [leads August out of the room, she ironically compliant]


In this sequence we are clearly reverting to a 1950s scenario, in which women are supposed to enjoy being bossed around while maintaining the real control, confusing men with their apparently illogical demands. While containing an element of parody, the parody is of the supposedly liberated feminist who enjoys patriarchy, a point reinforced by Mary’s enjoyment of evil-Dick’s manly attentions. Taking their cues from female responses, the men thus perform their masculinity for an appreciative audience.

The performative relationship par excellence of the show is that between Sally and the rather large Officer Don, a local policeman. In a knowing, intertextual fashion, Sally and Don act out roles from film noire and 1950s cop shows like the femme fatale, and the hard-boiled detective. Don is attracted to Sally for much the same reasons that other men are attracted to her, but she is attracted to him almost entirely for the role he plays, ignoring him when he is out of uniform. Thus, it is not Don’s “inner” personality that appears to appeal to Sally, but his performance of a macho masculinity “donned” with his policeman’s outfit. Don and Sally’s interaction is stagy, with Sally often acting with coy, girlish charm while under Don’s eye. This hyperfeminine persona is juxtaposed against and undermined by the fact that it is Sally’s warrior relish for brutality and violence that is explored in Don’s company. Like the femme fatales of noire, Sally takes on the personal of a naïve girl who needs protecting only when it suits her more dangerous intentions.

Sally’s stagy relationship with Officer Don is just part of the way in which she underscores the performative nature of gender. The fact that an experienced extragalactic warrior is inhabiting the body of a human woman is emphasized by the casting of Kirsten Johnson, an exceptionally tall and leggy actress who walks with a bold, even swaggering, step. While this body in some senses conforms to the highest ideals of supermodel-style femininity, as demonstrated in “36-26-36 Dick” in which super-beautiful alien women take over the town, it is also signaled as not a properly or naturally feminine body. While Harry is misidentified as a gay man (in the episode “Lonely Dick” and Tommy’s long hair and talents as a flower arranger bring accusations of both homosexuality and looking like a girl (in “A Dick on One Knee”), none of the male crewmembers are ever genuinely mistaken for women. In contrast, Sally in the episode entitled “World’s Greatest Dick” is taken for a cross-dresser when she is picked up in a gay bar, while in “The Dicks They Are A Changin’,” Tommy, under pressure to provide the “family” with a past, invents a history for Sally in which she was a stockbroker who underwent a sex-change operation in 1988. In each case Sally is represented as aspiring to be or acting as a woman rather than naturally inheriting femininity with a female body: her femininity is a drag performance.

Throughout the three seasons of the show, Sally, in order to be recognized as a woman, must actively take on the costume and the social rituals of femininity. This performance of femininity is visibly signaled in the show through the contrast between Sally’s habitual attire around the Solomon’s apartment — usually trousers, shirts, and a leather jacket — and the short and slinky cocktail dresses she wears for dates and trips into the wider world. Preparing for one of her first dates in “Dick Like Me,” Sally suffers a crisis of confidence in her performance of desirable womanhood. “Sure you can put on a tight little dress and look sexy and adorable, but you know what men are like. All they care about is how you dance,” she sobs. “Go out there and be a girl!” Dick commands. The order parallels Judith Butler’s writings on gender as performance. Butler notes that, “acts, gestures and desire produce the effect of an internal core of substance, but produce this on the surface of the body” (136). Like Butler, Dick’s comment in this episode suggests that “being a girl” is less to do with a natural femininity springing from the soul or the body, and more to do with the kind of clothes one wears and the gestures one uses.

Episodes of the show that focus on the cosmetics industry reiterate this point. We are very far from a natural, essential femininity here. For example the work that goes into performances of femaleness is central to the plot of “36-26-36 Dick”. In this episode Sally is able to infiltrate an occupying army of supermodelesque Venusian invaders, thanks to her height and bone structure, but is forced to undergo a series of tortuous procedures (exfoliation, eyelash curling) and adopt the obligatory revealing costume in order to performer [sic] her role as hyperfeminine seductress. In “36-26-36 Dick,” then, we have an alien mimicking yet other aliens who are themselves copying a select group of abnormally young, tall and thin humans, who in turn serve as unattainable models for ordinary women. These perversely interlocking masquerades illustrate Butler’s point that parody of gender “implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself” (137). By showing that femininity must be worked on and acted out, this episode suggests that we shouldn’t see Sally’s performance of gender as “fake” while other women are “real”. Instead, like Sally and the Venusians, ordinary female consumers perform femininity by emulating the fantastic bodies of supermodels. There are no “real” women, no natural or normal femininity here. Rather, it is the constant attempts of ordinary female consumers to play out the role of women properly that keep the wheels of the cosmetics and fashion industries turning.

But if the Cartesian novum of Third Rock renders strange human bodies and the rituals in which they engage, it seems that female bodies are in every way more remarkable, more evident, and more prominent than male bodies. After all, in the pilot episode we do not see the male occupants of the car probing their underwear to marvel at their genitals. In this episode, however, Sally is asked to bounce up and down so that the men can watch her breasts. Although she refuses, these breasts are almost immediately put on display in a tight-fitting, low-cut black dress. As we will argue in the following paragraphs, bodies in Third Rock, especially the prominent female body, suggest a reading of the show that is considerably more problematic for feminists than the progressive reading we have provided so far.

It has been argued that the sitcom is one of the most ideologically flexible of television forms, offering within one text a range of characters and political positions with which to identify (Marc, 1984, 65: see also Hnke, 84). We would argue that not only the gallery of characters and the somewhat episodic plotting of the show (Basic, 72) but also the comic form of Third Rock give some scope for articulating complex and contradictory points of view. The show’s polysemy, or capacity to be interpreted in many ways, has significant consequences for its representations of gender.


Third Rock as a comedy of containment

Third Rock frequently parodies or spoofs arbitrary conventions of gender. In series one, the Solomons are often seated, notepad and paper in hand, in front of the television. However, the familial roles that they attempt to perform in the show often seem to recall less contemporary television families, such as those of Roseanne or even Dallas, than the sitcom families of the ‘50s and ‘60s. A running “gag” in Third Rock is the family’s insistence that Sally undertake all domestic tasks while everyone simultaneously denounces her competence. In “Angry Dick,” for instance, Dick exclaims, “You must learn to cook. How far do you think you’re going to go with just a fabulous body and the intellect of a genius?” No one ever suggests that the male aliens could cook instead, although in “Dick and the Other Guy” Dick reveals that he can barbecue. When Sally is away attempting to infiltrate the invading Venusian forces that threaten to impoverish the Earth in “36-26-36 Dick,” the remaining Solomons call their landlady, Mrs. Dubcek, upstairs to wash some plates, as a last-ditch attempt to fend off starvation — they have not yet worked out that you do not need plates and cutlery to eat. Sally and her neighbor Mrs. Muller may quip about inflicting realistically detailed tortures on their menfolk, but they do so while picking out ripe tomatoes at the supermarket and preparing roast chicken (in the episode “Angry Dick”).

Perhaps the most extreme parody of the housewife of the 1950s and 1960s sitcoms is through the character of Janet in the episode “Fun with Dick and Janet,” which takes up the first two slots of season three. The family returns from its trip home with a wife for Dick: Janet (played by Roseanne Barr), the Big Giant Head’s niece, an excessively coy and feminine woman, is easily tricked by Sally into taking on the domestic work as her “right.” Janet has the last laugh, however, as Sally comes to resent being usurped by a more competent woman, and Janet discovers through the pages of glossy magazines that she is entitled to love, not just financial support, and goes off to find herself a toy boy. So it is Sally who takes up the paradigmatic activities of television’s middle-class woman: shopping, cooking and finding a man.

Fundamentally, although stuck in the kitchen, Sally is not the mother of the 1950s sitcoms but the elder sister as described by Susan Douglas, whose principle role is to get married. However, in keeping with the “dizzy” characterization usually accorded this role (see the Andy Hardy films and a recent construction such as The Wonder Years), she can be trusted neither to time these events suitably nor to select the right man. In “A Dick on One Knee” Sally accepts a marriage proposal from an attractive Frenchman. During the sequence, Dick reminds her that she is on a mission and that this may be a distraction. Sally retorts, “Dick, this is my mission. It’s what women are supposed to do.” Inevitably, the Frenchman turns out to be marrying for citizenship rather than love, and Sally is left feeling a failure once again, just as she is after Mr. Randall rejects her in “Big Angry Virgin from Outer Space.” Dick reprimands her: “You think you can just walk out of here and find another man? I mean really, just look at yourself. Those comically long legs, that blindingly shiny hair, those unruly breasts!”

The joke in the previous line is, of course, that Sally is, by most current standards, distinctly desirable. As with much of Third Rock, this line points to the absurdity of Dick’s high-handed criticisms of Sally’s “failures” but at the same time, within the context of the show it articulates an accurate criticism of Sally, that she is unable to find and keep a man. It could scarcely be argued that Third Rock is simply espousing an ideology of domestic femininity, but neither is it wholeheartedly offering a critique. Dick’s attack on Sally invites the audience both to laugh at and with Dick, as we will explore further later in this article when we examine the extent to which Sally’s body is used against her. In the meantime, Sally’s consistent failure to perform the stereotyped feminine role that is her mission within the show, suggests the narrative pattern of the “zany housewife” sitcom (Marc 1987, 107): sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and their ultimate model, I Love Lucy.

As Patricia Mellencamp has argued, I Love Lucy presents the audience with a paradox. The “situation” of the show involves Lucy desperately attempting to become a performer on her husband Ricky’s variety show, while inevitably finding herself unable to get out of the house and onto the stage or punished for attempting to do so. The irony here is that each episode of I Love Lucy hinges on the actress Lucille Ball’s virtuoso physical comedy (Mellencamp, 88). On one level, Lucy is contained in a conventional middle-class feminine role, while on another, she is already the performer she aspires to be. As Mellencamp argues, this structure allows the expression of the pleasures of female success, the frustrations of domestic containment, and the ideological norms of ‘50s television to be expressed in the same program. Andrea Press, in her work on women viewing I Love Lucy, demonstrates the fact that some viewers focus on the character of Lucy in her failed attempts to escape the kitchen, while others see Lucille Ball as a successful performer and business woman (125).

However, while it is reasonable to suppose that eccentricity created social and public space for the 1950s woman, it is not clear why this should be necessary for a woman of the 1990s. Theoretically, Sally is not restricted in her choices in the manner that structured Lucy’s life: there is no reason she should be financially dependent (although she apparently chooses to be so far much of the time), and the range of public behavior approved of for contemporary women is relatively broad. Sally’s eccentricities, rather than carving her out additional space, seem at times to be employed to restrict her further by, as we shall see, undermining her relationships with those around her and shaping her as a target for ridicule. Thus, the polysemy of the meanings articulated in the “zany housewife” sitcom around femininity and domesticity may point to one of the key ways in which Third Rock perpetuates conventions of gender even as it occasionally subverts them.



Perhaps the clearest indication of the way that Third Rock hedges its ideological bets is through the recurrence of the determinative body at certain points throughout all three seasons. In various episodes, hormones or other physical traits seem to dominate the behavior of the character in such a way as to emphasize the irrationality of human “nature.” In these moments the human bodies come to shape and even entrap the alien personalities within them in a way that is familiar from both Western and Eastern conceptualizations of the body as a limitation on the soul. A good example occurs in the second-season episode “My Mother the Alien.” Mrs. Dubcek, the Solomons’ landlady, asks Sally to baby-sit her grandson. The alien spirit of inquiry leads Dick to ask, “why do you assume Sally will be taking care of the baby?” Mrs. Dubcek responds, “She’s a woman,” to which Sally remarks with heavy irony, “Yet another perk.” The Cartesian novum of the show makes it possible for the show to defamiliarize gendered expectations of nurturing through the scarcely feminist voice of High Commander Dick. However, as the episode progresses, it begins to appear as if Sally is indeed the most capable of the foursome in the role of baby-sitter. While Dick, Tommy, and Harry are unable to get the infant to eat or stop crying, Sally instantly lapses into baby talk, knows what food helps with teething trouble, and is attuned to the child’s every need. “Mrs. Dubcek was right!” Sally exclaims delightedly, “I am great with the kid!” If we are in any doubt about the reasons for this affinity, Sally clarifies it for us:


Sally: Hush, I think I hear the baby turning over.

Dick: I don’t hear anything.

Sally: Of course, you don’t, you’re a man.


When questioned by Dick on her enthusiasm for this new mission, she says tentatively, as if surprising herself, “I mean, I know I complained at the start, but this is the first assignment when I actually feel like I’m using all of me.” There are certainly plenty of textual indications to suggest that Sally is referring to well-springs of maternal feeling emerging from her female body. However, as the previous dialogue suggests, Sally’s maternal behavior is seen as becoming a little obsessive, yet again conforming to the traditions of the zany housewife of the sitcom. She puts the baby in Dick’s bed, leaving him to sleep in the cot; won’t allow the phone to ring more than once while the baby is in bed; sees mortal danger in the pit of colorful balls that the toddler plays in at the supermarket; and finally refuses to return the infant to Mrs. Dubcek. Her behavior parodies the over-intense maternal feelings of baby snatchers.

If Sally’s behavior in this episode is largely represented as an instinctive maternal reaction issuing from her female body, the responses of the other aliens, and Dick in particular, appear to be at the other end of the Cartesian dualisms of mind and body, logic and emotion. He is stereotypically cold and calculating. Dick agrees to the baby’s arrival in the attic flat because it will be an opportunity to observe a young human. Later, he offers the baby to Mary Albright as a substitute for the pet fish he killed in her absence, treating the baby as a token in a wider game plan and brushing over both Sally’s and Mrs. Dubcek’s attachment to the baby as well as Dr. Albright’s affection for her fishy friends. The comparison between Dick, who is unable to look after a pet, and Sally, with her uprush of maternal feelings, is clearly offered.

In case we have missed the point that the desire to nurture comes programmed into the female body, Sally’s nurturing skills are once more on display in “Post-Nasal Dick.” When the whole family gets sick, the male members of the household retreat to bed, demanding attention. Once again, Sally is surprised by her own (natural) reaction: “All I want to do is curl up into a ball, yet somehow I’m compelled to nurture you.” Sally herself comes to consider that she is behaving in a way driven by natural or innate female instincts. Early in season one, she returns from explaining to her ex-date that she now understands his limitations — his failure to phone, his inability to interpret her desires, his rejection of her when he is not immediately offered sex — and realizes that she has expected too much. A starting point in her discussion with Dick of the differences between men and women is his assumption that her earlier (read feminine) behavior was somehow defective.


Dick: You’re fixed!

Sally: I’m not fixed! I’m supposed to be this way. I’m a woman.

Dick: Yes, and —?

Sally: Tell me, Dick — what kind of shampoo do you use?

Dick: I don’t know.

Sally: Exactly. And do you have the urge to have an eight-pound screaming larvae rip its way out of your abdomen?

Dick: No, I think I can do without that.

Sally: You see! Here you and I are completely different life forms and it’s just some sick cosmic joke that we have to share a planet.

Dick: You know, I’ve been thinking about your assignment. Maybe it wasn’t fair of me making you the woman?

Sally: I’m alright! I can handle the mood swings, the emotional issues, the cat-calls, the punitive underwear — because frankly, when I think of the alternative [looks him up and down] I just have to laugh. (“Dick Is from Mars…”)


At points during the first series of the show, the peccadilloes of Tommy and Dick’s male bodies also come into focus as impinging upon or constraining their identities. In the pilot episode “Brains and Eggs,” Tommy protests that he can’t help his adolescent lechery toward girls on his school volleyball team. A disbelieving Dick looks into his mind: “That’s disgusting!” he comments with sympathy. Dick, too, is shown to be subject to masculine rushes of lust and anger that appear to take the alien by surprise. In “Lonely Dick,” for instance, catching sight of Sally glammed up in pearls, frock, and make-up, he bursts out, “Oh, mama!” then wonders, “Why did I say that?” Similarly, when the Solomons’ neighbor Frank Muller tows Dick’s car in “Angry Dick,” Dick, having already come to see his car as an extension of his identity, is consumed by a fit of rage and slugs him then marvels at the feelings he is experiencing: “I feel better! And powerful! This is why people have friends. This is incredible. It’s the best I’ve ever felt!” The mutual respect that this punch brings between Frank and Dick indicates that this, like their excited discussion of ball-bearings earlier in the episode, is appropriate and natural male (bonding) behavior.



As we have already argued, Third Rock presents gender as both an arbitrary performance of conventional familial and sexual roles and as naturally springing from sexed bodies. By offering these two perspectives on gender side by side, the show’s viewers can choose to come away with any number of interpretations of the relationships between mind and body, sex and gender. Some of these interpretations and consistent with feminist positions, while others fit neatly into an antifeminist worldview. More worrying perhaps, from a feminist perspective, is the way that the objectified human body comes to be feminized, especially through the later seasons of the show, while the male bodies of Tommy, Dick, and Harry are increasingly invisible.

The Cartesian novum of the show increasingly allows the disembodied alien mind to be presented as masculine. This can be seen in the way that Dick’s behavior often converges with stereotypically masculine traits, despite the fact that he is apparently behaving simply like an alien in a human body. Dick’s performance of masculinity is a rather peculiar combination of ‘50s and ‘90s stereotypes of fatherhood. On the one hand, he attempts to play the patriarch, ordering the family about and “providing for the family”; on the other hand, he is “in touch with” his emotions, enjoying the novel sensation of crying when it is for joy, riveted by his attraction for Mary, and demonstrating all the narcissistic, attention-seeking behavior of the media representation of the “new man,” as described by Rowena Chapman and others. However, as the secretly superior alien, Dick inadvertently finds himself replaying much of the behavioral stereotype of the unreconstructed, self-obsessed male (see Hearn, 204, 206). He belittles Dr. Mary Albright’s academic achievements, he begs for attention when experiencing unaccustomed sickness, and he makes direct and often insulting comments about women’s physical appearance. Even at his most tender, Dick contrives to emulate the worst achievements of the “new man,” using his desire to know Mary better to draw attention to himself. All this, however, is technically in his persona of alien.

While Dick’s characteristic qualities as an alien in a human body converge with stereotypes of masculinity, there are other indications that the show inadvertently offers a gendering of its Cartesian novum. For example, a review of the pilot episode in SFX magazine describes Sally as “a male alien who drew the short straw” (Basic, 172): the writer assumes a male identity for Sally’s alien self that is never confirmed by the show’s script. The mind, here, is implicitly masculinized in a way that is in keeping with Western traditions of philosophy.13 The body is, in contrast, feminized both in Basic’s review and in the show itself. The SFX review goes on to pick out “[Actor Kirsten] Johnson’s exploration of her new body” as a key element of Third Rock’s plot, while the remaining Solomons’ experiences of male bodies are not mentioned (Basic, 72). This exemplary reading of the show gives a hint to the way that Third Rock increasingly equates the strangeness of the human body with the female body of Sally. One of the few moments of the show in which the male body is mentioned provides an internal comment on the way the male body is treated as invisible. In “Dick Is From Mars…,” Dick asks Tommy about his first day at school. Tommy replies: “Man, you can’t compliment anybody in the shower!: Just as the homophobic, macho atmosphere of the high school boys’ shower room makes it dangerous to remark on the display of male bodies, the show itself seems reluctant to point out the potential for comedy in the male body on screen.

We repeatedly see Sally ordered how to present herself in public. She does not learn how to be gendered, she is directed to be gendered and to a great extent this means physical display. In contrast, for example, Dick’s masculinity is indicated in part by his refusal to diet. As the seasons progress, Third Rock seems to conform with Dick’s Cartesian view of body and mind, allowing the male body to become invisible, while Sally’s body is increasingly subject to scrutiny and control.


The Humiliation of Sally

The implicit masculinity of the mind of the aliens and the feminization of the human body are most clearly evident in the way that Sally comes to be controlled and humiliated by the characters around her. As we have seen, from the pilot episode we are in a universe in which it is the female body that is considered the primary object of humor. The fascination of the male aliens with Sally’s cleavage points to the way that the male body is represented as private, while the female body is presented as a legitimate arena for public commentary and appropriation. Not only, however, is the female body placed firmly in public space, its construction within the show is almost always negative, even while we are expected to admire (or salivate over) Sally’s body. Our very first introduction to femaleness as a construct is negative:


Sally: Why am I the woman?

Dick: Because you lost.


This joke, like many in Third Rock, can be interpreted as both feminist and profoundly misogynist, recognizing the disadvantages attached to a female body but leaving it up to the audience to decide if this disadvantage is natural or socially organized. Our supposedly ungendered aliens have already, through their preparatory research, come to understand that to be feminine is to be inferior. Furthermore, they already comprehend that to be female is to be an object of the male gaze and that this is not only instinctive but proper. Tommy, on his first day among other young people, makes overtures to a girl on the volleyball team. Reprimanded for altering the life of a human being, he responds, “Yeah, but some of them are just asking for it!” While this is funny, its humor rests in part on the fact that this objectification is not corrected and that we recognize its relationship with the date-rape debate. In a later episode, “Lonely Dick,” Tommy’s girlfriend, August, protests when he tries to look down her blouse:


August: I don’t know how I could have expected a fourteen-year-old boy […] to separate my body from my mind.

Tommy: Wait, August, they’re attached!


If the female body is presented as always on display to male onlookers, it is also shaped for us as a body to be controlled and directed by the men of the house. At the end of the pilot episode, Dick decides to go to a staff party to further his fascination with Mary:


Dick: Which reminds me, I command you to shave under your arms.

Sally: Do-able. I’m sorry you find me so offensive [starts crying]


The uncontrolled female body is an object of shame: in the episode “Dick Is from Mars…,” Dick asks Sally to say something personal to practice for a date she has been ordered to make:


Sally: Once every lunar month my uterine lining sloughs itself.

Dick: [covering his ears] That may be too personal.


The exchange reinforces the point that shame is restricted not merely to display of the female body but to discussion of it. While the female is considered controlled by her body, she is, paradoxically, to be shamed by it. As late as the season-three episode “Eleven Angry Men and One Dick,” Sally is incapable of stepping beyond this sense of shame about her body. In response to a pretentious English poet, Seth, she changes her appearance drastically, wearing nothing but black “grunge” clothing, leaving her hair unwashed, and omitting to shave. However, first, this decision is taken solely to please Seth; it is not an autonomous action. And second, when Seth turns out to be a fraud, she reverts quickly back to conventional “femininity” and confesses herself relieved to have shaved again: the implication is both that the human female is “meant” to be shaved and powdered and that much femininity, while performative, is performed at the behest of men. As she complains in “Lonely Dick,” “While we’re on the subject of bodies, why is mine so much higher maintenance than yours?” Tommy: “I think the economy relies on it.” Much the same is true for the internal economy of the show.

By contrast, Dick maintains autonomy over his physical body, if not always as completely as he might like. In “Moby Dick” a rare reference is made to Dick’s physical condition; the humor is based in the revelation that men (including Dick) react to depression in much the same way as women: they eat. Dick’s waistline is expanding rapidly, the result of comfort eating after the breakup with Mary, and initially this leads to fruitless attempts to diet. However, the purpose of this episode is to confirm Dick’s masculinity. This is portrayed in the context of the mind-body split. Dick tries to order his body to lose weight but discovers he has no control over it (it is “animal”): “It has a stupid design flaw. It thinks it can fill a gaping emotional hole with food.” But the real issue is that men are privileged to accept their own bodies and their own body image to a far greater extent. Faced with a lifetime of controlled eating, Dick prefers the expedient of a larger pair of pants. He does not share the sense of failure that Mary displays at the “Fat Losers” club and he declares loudly: “My body is just the vehicle that carries my mind around. My brain deserves a smooth ride.” In contrast, as Sally points out, women are only allowed to gain weight when they are pregnant.

While Dick may be concerned about how he looks, there is little evidence that he feels his outward appearance to be at the root of either his personality or how he is perceived by others. In fact, in the season-three episode “Just Your Average Dick,” both Dick and Tommy eventually reject outward normality as an option, only Sally, whose gendered self is constantly subject to remodeling from those around her, finds it both easy and invigorating to take on this new role and personality. Although the connection is obvious, Sally’s belief in order and discipline is never linked with her role as a military officer. Interestingly, adherence to the social norms of the apartment block to which they move allows Sally to take far greater control over the family lifestyle than does their usual eccentricity. The message seems to be that women both gain from adherence to social norms and are responsible for their construction. The implication is that if men are eccentric, it is because women — despite their protestations — secretly prefer this. This is exemplified by a line reiterated in “Dick and the Other Guy,” in which Dick finds himself competing for Mary’s affections with a man more eccentric than himself. Sally’s failure to convince the family that being average is desirable results in a successful conspiracy to publicly undermine her in order that the men of the family can return to their preferred lifestyle. That we are clearly expected to identify with the men in this sequence should draw our attention again to one of the more disturbing aspects of the show, the carefully structured and long-term program of humiliation that Sally endures and at which the audience is expected to laugh.

Much of the humor in Third Rock is focused on the fact that Sally does not see herself as attractive, takes sarcastic comments seriously, and maintains a low level of self-esteem. The further the series travels, the more we are accustomed to Sally attempting to accept other people’s dismissive judgments of her. Dick’s (unwittingly funny) criticism of Sally’s comically long legs […] [and] unruly breasts” in “Big Angry Virgin from Outer Space” is a good example of the way Sally is undermined. When Mary makes a similar comment apparently as a compliment, sally is upset. But then, it may be an insult: in “Will Work for Dick” Sally has been playing with Barbie dolls with a neighbor’s child.


Nina: I always had Barbie tea parties.

Mary: Ah, Barbie, blond hair, tiny waist, legs up to her neck. Who grows up to look like that?

Nina: Yeah, who?

Sally: Yeah, who?


At the end of this exchange, Mary and Nina look daggers at Sally, reinforcing a point made continually throughout the show, and despite the close relationship of Mary and Nina, that women are principally competitors, not friends and allies. While this episode shows, in a potentially progressive way, the contribution of men to female low self-esteem and the arbitrary nature of standards of beauty, it manages to turn feminist critiques into a restatement of women’s competitive bitchiness.

All too often potentially empowering moments are later used to undermine Sally. As a military officer, Sally is unabashed about taking control of the supposedly masculine role of captain when Dick goes missing in “Dick Smoker” (season one). When the car breaks down, she pushes it one-handed to the garage. However, collecting the car later, Sally has that all-too-common experience: the mechanic talks to Harry (the dim one), not to Sally. Sally points out it is her car and Harry agrees.


Harry: I just stand here and nod.

Mechanic: Well, you gotta humor ‘em, [laughs and starts an anecdote about a red-head]


The mechanic’s humor dries up when he realizes that Sally has walked around him and has his balls (literally) caught in a wrench. Harry, clueless as usual, shrugs:


Harry: Women, huh?

Sally: Hello! I’d like my car ready in half an hour. I don’t want a 200 percent mark up on parts, and I’d like it washed. Thank you.


However, when Dick’s absence continues, Sally realizes she is on her own and panics. In tune with the conventions of the zany housewife, the little lady over-reaches herself and has to be rescued by the patriarch who sends her back to her kitchen sink.

As we have already argued, Sally spends much of Third Rock in a domestic context, trying (and often failing) to rebel against the strictures with which she is surrounded In keeping with this, when Sally does work, she works not to support herself or to enhance her self-esteem, but for “pin-money” to spend on make-up and accessories. This, inevitably, shapes her choice of employment. Throughout the course of the show, Sally holds down a number of minimum-wage jobs, as does Harry, but in season three, Tommy encourages Harry to go to night school to obtain his high school diploma. No one ever even mentions to Sally (who is clearly much more intelligent) that education is an option and, as if validating the family’s lack of faith in her, she proves herself unable to stick at any job for long. Furthermore, her employment often ends in fiasco. In “Tom, Dick, and Mary,” for instance, Sally gets a clerical job on the basis of looks along and finds herself the subject of sexual harassment. At first she sees it as her fault, viewing herself as the temptress, but when Nina corrects her, she reacts “inappropriately” and hits her boss. The consequence is that she loses her job and we receive a lesson that violence, while a bonding experience for men (in the episode “Angry Dick”), is unsuitable for women. As with Lucille Ball’s exploits, we are allowed to cheer the “zany” eccentricities of a woman, but we are not allowed to believe that a woman can win.

As the seasons progress, we are less and less permitted to see Sally’s assertiveness represented in any positive way, and the emphasis is all too often on her “innate” femininity and limited female body. We see the first indications in “Dick Is from Mars….”. When Sally does not receive the promised call from her date, she becomes frantic, referring to an indefinable pain, and starts sobbing that although a decorated veteran, she cannot handle the pain of being a woman; it is not clear whether she means the physical nature of femaleness or the social structure into which she is thrust. From this point on, Sally becomes more conciliatory and increasingly bashful with prospective boyfriends, often with little real understanding of what she is doing. She leaves chaos in her wake.

In the early episodes of the show, Sally is shown to be outgoing and confident, despite, or perhaps because of, her ignorance of the conventions of small talk and sexual by-play. Her approach to Mr. Randall, for example, is direct and to the point, without any acknowledgment of the rules of the dating game that would assign to her the role of prey, not predator: “Excuse me,” she says suddenly in the course of a parent-teacher interview, “there’s something about the thickness of your neck and the broadness of your shoulders that makes me think you’d be an agile hunter and provide well for our children” (in “Dick Like Me”). Her attempts to maintain this confidence, however, are undermined by the demands made by Mr. Randall that she maintain a performance the criteria for which are never clearly stated. In the season-two episode “Big Angry Virgin from Outer Space,” Mr. Randall begins to protest Sally’s assertiveness. In response, Sally enthusiastically embraces passivity. The principal sign of Sally’s submissiveness is a pink dress, accompanied by a continuous response of “You decide,” no matter what Mr. Randall asks. Unsurprisingly, he thinks he is being mocked:


Mr. Randall: Look, if there’s a problem here, just say so.

Sally: Oh, there’s no problem. I’m just trying to please you.

Mr. Randall: Would you drop this, OK?

Sally: Something’s wrong, isn’t it?

Mr. Randall: You like to play naïve, but you know exactly what you’re doing. [Sally’s pose changes from prim and ladylike as she moves to sit astride her chair — gestures forcefully]

Sally: Back up! Is naïve a good thing in a woman or a bad thing?

Mr. Randall: Are you trying to drag me into some neofeminist debate?

Sally: I don’t know, you decide!

Mr. Randall: Fine, I’ve decided, lunch is over! [gets up and leaves]


At least one uncomfortable implication of this exchange is that there is something undesirable about a feminist, a suggestion only mildly counteracted by the inconsistent feminism of August and Mary. Furthermore, Sally’s experiences with Mr. Randall offer a different twist on the suggestion that women enjoy playing with patriarchy. For Sally, the game is only fun while it is still recognizably a game — hence the greater success of her relationship with Don.


A definitive reading of Third Rock…

We have argued throughout this chapter that the Cartesian novum of Third Rock — the occupation of human bodies by alien minds — allows the show both to articulate incisive criticisms of contemporary practices of gender and to reproduce nostalgic, hyperconventional representations of domestic femininity. Third Rock often represents gender as less a matter of sexed bodies and their hormones than an acting out of gender conventions. However, the way that Sally, like her predecessor Lucy, is so frequently humiliated or brought low by her association with a (shameful) female body is, we would suggest, an indication of some of the problems of understanding gender as a performance. There is a long-standing convention of attributing a gendered hierarchy to the Cartesian dualisms of mind and body and, as writers like Susan Bordo have shown, the idea that gender is acted out through the body is vulnerable to a reading that sees the (implicitly feminized) body as an instrument or as a trap of the rational (implicitly masculine) mind. In Third Rock this is illustrated in the undercutting of Sally’s rational military officer by the imperatives and desires of the female body. While we have explored the textual evidence for each of these apparently contradictory interpretations of the show, our purpose is not to propose either as definitive. The ambivalence toward gender roles portrayed in the series is sufficient that at times a separate interpretation may be required for each episode, as the shows switch between conservative and radical conceptualizations of gender. Thus, the success of both this program and the sitcom genre of which it is a part can be in some ways attributed to its polysemy: the way it allows both feminist and conservative understandings of the relationship between mind and body, gender and sex. However, the longer the show continues, the more evident it becomes that potential feminist interpretations are being undercut both by the show’s inconsistent ideology — its continual flirtation between the ideas that gender is innate and that it is culturally constructed — and its inability to move beyond the objectification and humiliation of the female body as its primary source of humor.


Works Cited

Basic, Todd. “TV Review; Third Rock.” SFX (13 June 1996): 72.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Chapman, Rowena. “The Great Pretender: Variations on the New Man Theme.” In Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity. Edited by Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford. New York: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988.

Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. London: Penguin, 1994.

Gatens, Moira. “Towards a Feminist Philosophy of the Body.” In Crossing Boundaries: Feminism and the Critique of Knowledges. Edited by Barbara Caine, E. A. Grosz, and Marie de Lepervanch. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1988, 59-70.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1994.

Hanke, Robert. “The ‘Mock Macho’ Situation Comedy: Hegemonic Masculinity and Its Reiteration.” Western Journal of Communication 62, no. 1 (1998): 74-93

Harries, Dan M. “Camping with Lady Divine: Star Personal and Parody.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 12, nos. 1-2 (1991): 13-22.

Hearn, Jeff. “Is Masculinity Dead? A Critique of the Concept of Masculinity/Masculinities.” In Understanding Masculinities. Edited by Mairtin Mac an Ghaill. Buckingham: Open University, 1996.

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. London: Blackwell, 1987.

— -, Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.

Mellencamp, Patricia. “Situation Comedy, Feminism and Freud: Discourses of Gracie and Lucy.” In Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Edited by Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986, 80-95.

Press, Andrea L. Women Watching Television: Gender, Class, and Generation in the American Television Experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Ramet, Sabrina Petra, ed. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and historical Perspectives. London: Routledge, 1996.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” In Towards an Anthropology of Women. Edited by Rayna R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.

Straub, Kristina. Sexual Suspects: Eighteenth Century Players and Sexual Ideology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.


The book this was written for took so long to find a home that the article below was woefully out of date. John Barnes had [how dare he!] written the rest of the series. I did not have the time to return to the project and it has languished in a computer folder ever since.



Prosperity Will Return After a Short Adjustment: the inevitable free markets of John Barnes.



“In the revolutionary sense alone, gentleman, I vote for free trade.” (Marx, Jan 9 1848).



The connection between John Barnes’s politics, and the political and economic mechanisms in his Thousand Cultures sequence, can be found in his short essay, “How to Build a Future” (Analog, March, 1990). In order to create his future worlds, Barnes turns to economic modelling, specifically the Kondratieff long wave and the war cycle, which he worked out on a spread sheet to extrapolate a future of interstellar expansion, war, a cultural inward turn on Earth, and a subsequent revival of expansionism with the arrival of new technology. Everything that occurs within the novels occurs within this structure. Like Asimov’s Foundation, while short term events are unpredictable, long term patterns have an element of inevitability. This belief in inevitability as it is constructed in the novels is essentially utopian for it argues not just that the world, removed of constraints, cannot be any different, but that the outcome is essentially better than any of the more ostensibly constructed models with which we are presented. And more, that the inevitable processes of the market cannot be denied but only constrained: opposition will be posited as historically flawed and essentially “unnatural”, although actual appeals to “nature” will only ever be made by those in opposition to the system.

Thus Barnes creates a utopia, built on a belief that “this” is the best of all possible worlds, because it is the most inevitable of all possible worlds. The very nature of the market cycles resolves the standard objection to utopianism, that one cannot predict the consequences of any action taken within the model. In Barnes’ universe similarly, individual actions create unexpected events, but the overall pattern is simply reinforced. The situation remains utopian in part because the unpredictable acts within a range of expectation, exemplified best in the changes that occur in response to sudden technological advance. History, in the Thousand Cultures sequence, comes to the defence of a particular political system. That system builds historical inevitability and historical materialism into its founding mythos. Barnes’ Thousand Culture sequence founds its utopia upon the principles of free trade and free market economics, minimum government and maximum cultural destruction, and his understandings of the relationship between the individual and the state, between culture and irrationality, seem essentially Hegelian.

Given that there is a revolutionary dynamic in each of the novels discussed here — and presumably in the two still to come in the series — one can suppose that Barnes intends this moment in the universe to be a precursor to another, more utopian moment. This is built into the premise of the novels: the expansion of the Thousand Cultures must have an end-point. What happens at that end point — when all markets are connected, and when it is no longer possible to shortcut the falling rate of profit by relocation — is of course central to the Marxist analysis of the future. It is a better strategy for a Marxist to let the market loose in this direction than it is promote preventive reformism. In this article, I intend to demonstrate the ways in which assumptions of inevitability and historical determinism are deployed to undercut and invalidate both other utopias and, ostensibly, the utopian project while creating what is essentially a utopia.

The Thousand Cultures sequence adopts a structure common to sf but also to utopias: it seeks to follow through the political and economic effects of a specific technological change — the invention of the Springer and the subsequent creation of an interstellar economy — in which the model is tested as much as it might be within a more sociological construction. In the process, the novels follow the narrative patterns of the classic utopia: through the eyes of the Guest (Giraut Leones of Nou Occitan, on Wilson) we are shown around a new society (Caledony), provided with both a simplistic narrative and a more complex critique, and permitted to compare the Interstellar culture with the retreating societies it meets. The inevitability of the interstellar culture’s success becomes the dominant utopian theme.

The Barnes trilogy (although eventually it became a series of five books) consists of A Million Open Doors, Earth Made of Glass, and Merchant of Souls. The first of the three books introduces the reader and the protagonist, Giraut Leones, to Springer technology — instantaneous physical transfer, at a very high energy cost, to anywhere in the settled universe. The result has been to trigger the reunification of the colony planets with Earth and the Inner Settlements. The colony planets have all been settled under charters intended to preserve human genetic and cultural diversity prior to the forced Assimilation on earth itself which is intended to put an end to conflict (this is confusing because in the third book ethnic appearance and identity still exists on Earth). Some of these colonies have been settled in order to explore life-styles which preclude free trade. None that we see is avowedly communist, but one, Caledony, has created a theology of market rationalism which results in both state capitalism and a bizarre communist individualism. In the intervening centuries, the Earth and the Inner Settlements have adopted a belief that free trade in all commodities — material and intellectual — is the key to successful human relations. The corollary also posited is that with free trade will come cultural integration and homogenisation, which is presented in and of itself desirable.

The Thousand Cultures are engaged in the kind of economic imperialism recognisable to any student of the British Empire. Upon opening up a planet the first step is to open the Bazaar, a large market containing goods from all over the Empire. Newly opened planets are allowed to keep their charters and to retain self government but they are not permitted to interfere with interstellar trade or their citizens’ access to interstellar trade in any way whatsoever. The immediate effect of this is to send the colonised culture’s economy into shock. Cheap imports or simply the possibility of variety sends tremors through the market, closing some industries or occupations while inflating the value of others. This is casually referred to as a Connect Depression and it is assumed that the invisible hand of the market will eventually bring economies back into balance (MOD, 31) because the computer models assure us that this is the case. These models are never actually explained, but we are told they are all based on previous experience. The Kondratieff cycle is taken not as a theoretical prediction based on a time specific context, but a law. Implicit to the model is the assumption that after the Connect Depressions and Booms, the economy will eventually stabilise at a level acceptable to all. There is very little suggestion that it might stabilise to permanent depressions.

Of course none of this guarantees the happiness of individuals in the short term, but it is considered to have the most stable long term consequences, and it is economic stability that is the definition of the utopian for these texts. The model for utopia demands only that utopia be better, that it be more perfectible and that there be a general acceptance that the context and paradigm within which individual unhappiness takes place is acceptable and justified. Both LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Samuel R. Delany’s Triton rely on this understanding and Barnes, by providing us with an uneasy and restless narrator — whose restlessness receives only limited ease by his new place in the utopia — extends the trope.

What utopia must provide is order and acceptance of order. As J. C. Davis has argued, “Power and order are the twin impulses of the utopian imagination.” (Davis: 1987, 86) Utopia must create a value structure which all citizens accept, and order and the acceptance of order must be directed to support the value structure. But Barnes deviates from the assumption common to many “classic” utopias that “its instruments are laws, sanctions, bureaucratic efficiency and effectiveness, education and the controlled application of technology.” (Davis: 1987, 86) In the Thousand Cultures most laws are local, and aintellects negotiate the interstices to create interstellar law on the basis of precendence. Much of the third book relies heavily on this negotiation and creation of a system of commonlaw. External to the control of interstellar law, the Thousand Cultures publicly espouses a form of Nozick’s minimal state resulting in an endless plurality of cultures and, as we shall see, utopias. The structure of “order” which encircles this utopia is traced instead to a form of Natural Law, specifically the Invisible Hand of the market. In this, Barnes makes a clean break from the classic model of utopia. Tom Moylan in asserts, “The globe encircling activity by the always exploiting market is opposed by a literary genre that once celebrated system but now re-opens the place of opposition to all such enclosing systemic efforts.” (Moylan: 1986, 51). Ken MacLeod’s utopias have already challenged the automatic oppositioning of utopia to the free market and it is similarly a crucial element of the Banks trilogy. In order to function ideologically, the narrative of the books has to maintain that the market is not a system contrived to create utopia, but is best because it is fundamentally natural to human activity. The market here is the invisible hand of history.

However, the market is an unexciting protagonist, and so too is the inevitability of history, as Asimov demonstrated in his Foundation series, and in the second book Barnes feels required to create the shadowy figures of the OSP. Convinced of their own intrinsic superiority to the common herd, this group is only barely in evidence in A Million Open Doors, restricting themselves only to supporting a countercoup in Caledony. By the second book they have mutated into a fully fledged, interstellar CIA, who by the third book are quite happy to interfere with the rest of the galaxy in order to provide the ignorant masses of Earth — who are barely aware the other planets exist (MS, 255) — with the entertainment they crave, while publicly espousing a doctrine of non-intervention, at least at the macro level. One of the cleverer ironies within the book is the tension between those who wish to liase with formal government and those who prefer to operate within the cultural authorities: both argue for the autonomy of whichever they feel is least important. However, the interstellar police force, such as it is, is the least significant force for order within these books. If this utopia is to work, it must be dependent upon a more natural power, specifically the stability and system which the market provides.

The forces of order must be strong enough to convince others that their value structure is correct: it does not matter that the Thousand Cultures, in their hegemonic expansion, systematically destroy the other cultures with which they come into contact. It is traditional that utopias conquer savages — defined by their refusal to accept that the rival culture is a utopia and the significance of defeat is that it proves the cultural superiority of the conquering power. Barnes argues in A Million Open Doors that such cultural destruction may be invaluable to the path of progress towards the revolutionary society, and the more perfectly it is achieved, the more perfect is the expected future The imperfect and unpredictable nature of the market in itself provides this room for flexibility.

At the opening of A Million Open Doors we learn that the Springer has triggered the outward expansion of an Earth based hegemony. It is very unclear why Earth has decided to contact the colony worlds: in the second and third books in the series, the desire to unite in the face of possible First Contact with an alien species has become the motivating factor, but at the same time we are told that most of the Earth population neither believes in nor cares about the existence of the colony worlds, never mind the reality of aliens. Earth is sunk in its own virtual utopia of total immersion tanks (one is forced to wonder how Earth’s population reproduces itself or why). The nearest we ever come to an explanation is that Earth demands entertainment, and expansion is one means of securing the best there is in the world to be entertained by. Earth has, in a sense, reached the end of history. The narrative of the books is an argument that this end is only a pause before a new cycle begins.

But it is also very unclear why the colonised planets tolerate either the arrival of Earth or the Cultural imperialism which demands the opening of the Free Trade Bazaar. Very few of the colony worlds are democracies or appear to encourage freedom of information — and the Springer threatens political instability. The threat of the removal of a colony world’s charter might be considered the motivating factor, but where a colony world has only one culture and no competitor to welcome a Springer and hence to create a rival economic structure, it seems obvious that any colony could keep the Thousand Cultures at bay for some time by refusing to build the Springer and destroying every Earth ship that arrived — we later learn that the Addams system may be prepared to do precisely this. However, the narrative (but not the authorial) voice, continually preaches the inevitability of both Connect and depression. Given that this is a modelled utopia one must presume that the political instability that ensues is both calculated and desired.

The utopian argument presented in A Million Open Doors is that economies are inherently stable within a free trade context. According to how well they are already aligned to the interstellar economy, a new entrant will experience first a consumer boom, and then a depression. This will continue with ever smaller swings until the new culture is integrated fully with the interstellar free market and as the local economy adapts to external conditions, learns to market its products and loses those industries which cannot compete with the cheaper labour or production costs elsewhere in the galaxy. All of this is straightforward enough. However Barnes’ account of it, or at least that of his protagonist Giraut (and Giraut is not necessarily reliable) obscures other economic factors: for example, it is not clear that every economy has anything to trade. Caledony, a colony which deliberately rejects most forms of entertainment and whose cultural capital is limited to theological discourse of a peculiarly abstruse kind finds only at the end of the novel that it will have tourism when alien artefacts are discovered (and there is no discussion of the problems of a tourism economy). In contrast, while Nou Occitan’s economic system was also unprepared for free trade it’s alignment as an aesthetic culture placed it in a good position to compete in the only real commerce: that of art and music. Both cultures import technology and, it becomes clear later, manufactured goods. Until Caledony discovers its archaeology, therefore, its future seems bleak, as its intellectual exports — economists, mathematicians and theologians — have little market. Only a deus ex machina rescues it, yet we are the message of the book is that recovery is inevitable. We are being systematically directed away from a possible critique of the ideological structures of the novel.

On the surface, the turmoil that the Connect depression creates seems dystopian, but for both Marxists and free market advocates, political turmoil can be beneficial if it paves the way for more appropriate modes of organisation and later production. It is possibly no coincidence that the Springer has the greatest effect on non-democracies. The social instability brought by the Springer is not merely consequential but actively desirable if the interstellar economy is to expand. Both Nou Occitan and Caledony must acquiesce to both economic and political restructuring.. Briand, which attempts to take on board the prospect of a wider economy while resisting political change is destroyed by the forces of history. Briand is condemned utterly, because it utterly rejects the force of nature/the market,. The market is both expression of utopia and the means by which to achieve it.

But in reality the free market is not an outgrowth of natural law, nor is it the inevitable course of history. It remains at the mercy of the state (or states) and is constantly hedged by ifs and buts. The extent to which the market is allowed to proceed unchecked is one of the questions at the heart of the novels, and is central to the intervention in Caledony. Despite the assurance that the interstellar bazaar is a free market, that natural laws will prevail and that if left alone the model will right itself, the authorities in Caledony are advised that workers will need to be supported until the economy stabilises. Similarly, in Nou Occitan, there is a deliberate and condoned attempt to manipulate the effect of the fall out by giving larger living allowances to the nobility in order to accommodate the specific and alternate utopian order. Suddenly, the Invisible Hand of the market is supported by the very visible hand of a welfare structure.

All this is at variance to the assertion, made repeatedly to the people of Caledony, that any attempt to avoid the Connect Depression will merely prolong instability and economic distress. This is the very reason that the representatives of the Thousand Cultures argue that the Caledony system of distribution — a complex manipulation of both labour and commodity values to accord with a designed moral order — is improper. So we are forced to accept is a sleight of hand in which direct manipulation of the economy in the name of Rational Christianity is considered utopian, but the mediation of suffering created by refusing that manipulation — charity or welfare — is acceptable. This is a curiously Tory response to the economic instability and is defended consistently with the assertion that the free market is neither ideological nor utopian but simply is: in fact that its inability to be utopia is its very strength, that it will eventually force all economies into alignment with the natural cycles That those cycles are natural is a given. What is and is not permitted in the way of subsidy are unclear but the key appears to be this issue of what is ideological and what is natural. Random provision of charity in the short term is in itself aligned with natural cycles. The long term attempt to actually control prices and markets can only cause both to swing more severely. This argument thus preserves the value of the system on offer while justifying the destruction of the colonised economy of Caledony.

The classic utopia has traditionally been defined in part by its relatively rigid narrative structure: customarily it requires that the utopia be narrated from the viewpoint of a Guest. Barnes confuses the issue because his narrators themselves come from [competing] utopias. To complicate matters still more, while Margaret (Giraut’s wife) is a dissenter within her own culture and forms part of the “proof” of its fundamentally oppressive nature, Giraut is a success within his, mourns for its passing and regards his participation in the new Thousand Cultures utopia as the only means by which he could continue within his own cultural paradigms. Nou Occitan would have forced him from his youthful idyll and insisted that he become an adult in a world in which art and music are the perquisites of the young. But the point remains that we explore the Thousand Cultures through the eyes of outsiders: the qualities which make it utopian, the free exchange of intellectual and material goods, the ability of individuals to determine (within the pressures of market forces) their own destinies, and the abilities of the OSP to maintain order between and on planets are all subjected to a critique based on a comparison to the Guest’s point of origin. Barnes’s novels, like Banks’ Consider Phlebas, constructs a tale of competing utopias. (Mendlesohn: 2001, forthcoming).

One of the commonest problems intrinsic to the utopian narrative is the creation of narrative tension. In the first and second book, the narrative hinges simply on the impact of a utopian culture upon an asserted dystopian culture and the narrative of comparison which leads to justification. As I have already argued, in order to sustain the “natural” free market argument, other cultures, and specifically those that set themselves up as utopian, must be challenged, often on moral, as well as economic grounds, and this is the model with which the books proceed. The Thousand Cultures, with their faults, become the “best of all possible worlds” when contrasted to other attempts in the same direction. Their destructiveness is inherent in the need for the hegemonic market, and ultimately potentially one of the benefits.

When A Million Open Doors begins, Giraut Leones is a jovent (a young and carefree man) on Nou Occitan, a made culture moulded on the traditions of the troubadors. It values art, music, poetry, good taste, dueling, brawling, courtly love and youth. Youth, or the joventry, live in a special quarter where they celebrate life and create art until, bored, they decide to settle down. It is, in effect, a utopia. It exists at the end of its own history, so convinced that what it is it will always be, that artists paint the results of a terraforming that has not yet been completed, rather than what they actually see. Nou Occitan is spoiled for Giraut only by the awareness that the new Interstellar Culture is bringing the era of joventry to a close.

 Into this comes the demand that one of Giraut’s friends, Aimheric, return to his home world of Caledony on Nansen where the opening of the Thousand Culture’s Bazaar is expected to create greater economic dislocation than it has done on Nou Occitan, previously the culture most affected by the arrival of the Springer. Betrayed by his entendendora, or current girlfriend, Giraut takes himself off in a huff to Nansen, a wintry planet, unchanged by terraforming and inhabited by a self-conscious utopian colony dedicated to Rational Christianity: an ideology which believes that God blesses the free and rational market, but whose practitioners find themselves compelled to manipulate it in order to ensure that God does not appear to bless the ungodly and the wicked. Caledony has ended the history not of its culture but of its planet: there is no terraforming, the planet is as God intended.

It is because Giraut visits Caledony first that he is able to avoid noticing that his own culture is a utopia: in the third book he explicitly separates it from the utopian (Merchant of Souls, 23). His experiences with the OSP further destroy the possibility of conceptualising Nou Occitan as a utopia given the new value paradigm into which he is inducted. By the end of A Million Open Doors, Giraut has been alerted to the pressures and limitations placed upon women — valued too highly to be permitted to occupy boring but essential political posts, valued to little to be considered any more than dilettantes in the only world that counts to the joventry, that of the artist, and on the receiving end of a culture that regards the female body as a prize to be won and used. On these grounds he decides that Nou Occitan is a less perfect culture than that promoted by the Thousand Cultures. Its destruction (rather than modification) is both justified and inevitable. Once having decided this Giraut turns, in the third book, to an exploration of Nou Occitan’s education system. In this section Barnes plays cleverly with the utopian trope. In Merchant of Souls Barnes gives us a chance to revisit Nou Occitan’s utopian past through Giraut’s memories as his friend Raimbaut, inserted in his brain as a psypyx, sorts through his memories in order to begin rebuilding his own. As a “revisitor” Giraut now sees one of the most crucial aspects of any utopian project, the education of the citizen, from the outside, and the idyll comes under suspicion.

Nou Occitan education is designed to produce artists. The training of an Occitan involves pampering in childhood. This was then succeeded by a boarding school recognisable to many a middle class Englishman.


[This would…] make us feel lonely, isolated and misunderstood, and would not be nearly as much fun, but through the centuries, in many different civilizations, creative artists have been drawn from people who are hurled from a loving Eden into a cold, bleak, savage Looking-Glass Land. The process is brutal but it creates the drive that leads people to find and train their talents.

Of course, for people who have little talent to train, the process creates only extreme, deep, lasting unhappiness. Occitans talk about our artists with pride, and we ignore our suicide rate with cultivated disinterest. (MS, 53)


There is no assumption that education must be kind, nor that it must succeed in educating everyone. In this best of all possible worlds, one way to deal with the misfits is for them to die. Education of this brutal sort, with punishment beatings and an emphasis on art and style is accompanied by the kind of holidays Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, or Nancy Drew would have enjoyed.


We climbed rockfaces we shouldn’t have been on at all, swam too far out in water that was too rough, became lost in the woods so many times that my father threatened to have my transponder embedded surgically, and did our share of petty thievery, lying, and cheating.

…Nou Occitan has one of the higher death rates for children and adolescents, but the survivors have had a great time. (MS, 79).


In common with many self avowed utopias, Nou Occitan sees adulthood as something learned, if necessary through psychotherapy. (MS, 102) Utopia does not shape its adults merely by being, but as an active process: the arguments elsewhere for inevitability of human behaviour in the market are precisely concerned with the distortion necessary to persuade people to resist its imperatives. Caledony sees education as vital to its mission, but regards rationalism as intrinsic to the human nature, and therefore to be shaped rather than inculcated. This positions its education as “rational” and therefore as presumed/pretended neutral. While we hear little about Earth education, we do see its results, an entire society in which teaching is considered an imposition upon the feelings of others. Although Giraut is unamused by this, and the passage can only be read as satire, there still remains the concern that this is desirable, the ultimate in human freedom. No alternative mode of teaching is presented in argument.

Already knowing that its culture is an artifice, in fact proud of such artificiality (Yvette’s poetry is prized precisely in accordance with the degree to which it is unnatural; artists are prized for the degree to which they present what is not yet there in the landscape) Nou Occitan generally gives in gracefully when confronted with a new, more fashionable artifice. Caledony, resting on an ideology that argues for the rationality, morality and natural state of its economic system, cannot admit that it may be wrong and therefore cannot bend in front of a culture (the Thousand Cultures) that also considers itself rooted in natural law.

Where Nou Occitan can be framed as the incomplete utopia (its treatment of women) or as the lost utopia (a suitable conceptualisation for a Romantic culture — status as a lost utopia is almost more Romantic than utopian existences) the Benthamite Utopia of Caledony is posited as the false utopia and it is the objective proof of this falsity via “natural” social collapse and historical inevitablity that simultaneously “proves” the utopia of the Thousand Cultures. But we also need to consider Caledony as the argument against the existence of the perfect market. In order for its virtue paradigm to function, Caledony has resorted to manipulation of the market. It is a Looking Glass universe in which the capitalists have forgotten their own assertion that there is no such thing as utopia, no perfect market. In order to attain perfection, they have recreated the Keynsian economy.

This is a universe in which colonies have been allowed to write their own version of Earth history. History is an acknowledge weapon, but Barnes cheats and presents it as a weapon manipulated only by the “false” utopias. The Thousand Culture’s own use of economic history is always taken as truth. But Caledony has made Adam Smith into a saint, martyred for the cause, and created a belief structure in which self interest and reason can create both order and good. This ideology is manifested in a belief that action or product can be quantified and that there is no such thing as altruism. At the same time, Caledony’s belief in self interest is not translated into property rights or individualism. On Caledony, given that it is more financially rational to rent coffee cups than to buy them, people rent their coffee cups. The entire system is held together by the principle that people act most rationally when they are tied by economic bonds. However, in order to make the system work, the council of Caledony manipulate the system to ensure that some products are desirable than others, that those considered morally sound are wanted by the market. It also ensures that no one starves. This latter point is avoided in the wholesale demolition of Caledony’s culture. Given that it is the intervention of the Thousand Cultures which facilitates the coup, by destabilising a relatively moderate government, it is worth examining the rhetoric with which the OSP justifies this. As we have already pointed out the OSP does justify some cultural subsidy, and is willing to argue that Caledony, in common with orthodox free market thinking should create a welfare system. This is held to be much less destabilising than other, counter-cyclical interventions such the control of the internal market to obviate the need for said welfare: These are “proved” by the use of computer programs to merely exacerbate the problem. Of course, the program itself proceeds on the given economic paradigm that regards some subsidies as more corrupting of the model than others, and successfully proves that the Thousand Culture’s version of the free market is infinitely superior.

Whereas Caledony’s inadequacy as a utopia is “proved” by its internal collapse, Briand, the planet at the centre of the second novel, is adjudged a failure from the beginning. The planet of Briand is occupied by two cultures, the Tamil and the Maya. Both are aesthetic cultures structured around false histories (in this case histories that never existed) and as a virtue of that, both are essentially utopias within their own terms and that of their inhabitants. This is true even though the Mayan culture requires that it’s peasants experience the privation of starvation: the story, the carved history of the Maya, is primary. It serves the preservation of the order which all have, apparently, accepted (there is no indication of an incipient peasants revolt). The truth of the narrative is both literal and metaphorical.

If the Platonic ideal of the utopia is preserved then it must be acknowledged that it relies a great deal on consensual pretence. Plato is clear about this. At no point does he assert that the various grades of citizen in his Republic are naturally unequal, but instead argues that they will pretend, for the benefit of an orderly society, that they are unequal, because through this pretence they secure the best of all possible societies. While the Maya perhaps most approximate this construction: the more so because the ability to abolish poverty sanctifies their preservation of it, the Tamil too are engaged in a pretence. In order to secure their utopia they have abolished the top and bottom of the cast system. All are now Velalla, warrior-farmers, though there are no wars and no cows. The metaphor does not, of course, encompass everyone, as with so many utopias (but not, interestingly, in Caledony) women are external to this egalitarian paradigm.

Much of the disaster that ensues does so because the protagonist and the organisation he represents, the OSP, do not recognise that their faith in their own system parallels that of the Tamil and Maya. They are rational, the inhabitants of Briand are not. While the reader is inclined to sympathise with the OSP, it is in part because of the OSP’s assumption that utopia is a false construct and hence vulnerable to the inevitability of the market, that encourages the OSP to perceive Briand as potentially assimilable.

Both Tamil and Maya are intolerant of outsiders although the Tamil see themselves as virtuous by their desire to convert others to the only true art form — a mirror image of the Thousand Cultures but without the power to impose their culture. The Tamil, too, have a belief in an inevitable process of history, but theirs is a cultural rather than material progress. Before the springer even arrives on Briand the Tamil and Maya are in conflict with each other. Deposited on only marginal land blocks, the natural destruction (by volcano) of the Maya settlement has led to a generous offer by the Tamil to share land. Generations later, generosity has been soured by continued proximity and resentment, there is ethnic conflict and a general acceptance of a low level of ethnically motivated atrocity. At the conclusion of the book the two cultures destroy each other.

Although it is perfectly feasible to argue that the worlds of Briand are dystopian, the structure of the novel follows the path of the conventional utopia. Whereas dystopias are commonly told from within, Briand is narrated from without as Giraut explores its geographical and physical structures. Most striking is the attention paid to geography and to architecture: both New Tanjavur’s and Yaxkintulum are designed to provide a politicised environment. Tamil New Tanjavur’s deep cisterns and public spaces create a world in which poetic criticism takes place in the streets, ensuring that an otherwise abstruse occupation can take place under general notice. Their public spaces are designed to provide different communities with appropriate facilities: children occupy areas where they are made specifically welcome — all symptoms of the utopian aesthetic. Similarly, the Maya live in an environment that continually narrates the stories that shape their consciousness. The streets of Yaxkintulum are carved with pictographs carved by aintellects who spin a history from the scraps and shards of myth and legend. Neither could significantly alter the structure of their society without changing its physical shape, or depriving that physical shape of meaning.

In addition to the physical structure, Giraut is also drawn to delineate the social structure and what he describes both places his own culture in relief and demonstrates the benefits of the systems he observes. This is perhaps clearest over the issue of violence. As we learn in the third book, Occitans’ propensity to settle quarrels with violence is useful to the OSP, but in Tamil Mandalam, Giraut is frequently frustrated by the unwillingness of the Tamil to fight. To fight him is not honourable despite their belief in the honour of war. This is a culture which by defining honourable violence as something that happens in very specific circumstances, has succeeded in discouraging internal conflict. That the Tamil have displaced violence onto the Maya, and simultaneously refused to recognise it as such, is of course traditional in utopian societies. Attacking savages is merely the necessary preservation of utopian hegemony. It is not warfare.

While the OSP dislikes the two societies, their own conceptualisation of themselves as utopia demands tolerance: their own ideologies assume that what is improper will wither away in the face of inevitability of the free market, it does not therefore need to be tackled head on (as Ambassador Keil, obsessed with the details of the society, attempts). The Thousand Culture’s attitude is problematic because it creates a dilemma. Once it starts intervening against perceived rights-violations it inadvertently denies the process of historical inevitability in which the market resolves conflicts peacefully (apparently no one ever goes to war over trade in the Thousand Cultures). By intervening the Thousand Cultures confesses that theirs is an ideology, not a default state of nature.

In the third book, Merchants of Souls, the existence of internal conflict over the meaning and direction of the utopian project is expressed in two ways, first by indicating the decadence at the utopian core, Earth. In part, this supports the hostility of authorial voice to even the possibility of utopia. Utopia must, in and of itself, lead to decadence — the Star Trek mythos if you will. But concerned to protect this best of all possible worlds, Barnes openly embraces the other narrative potential in the Utopia, the possibility of infinite renewal through internal conflict. The essential conflict appears to focus upon what element of any given society should be the target of OSP operations.

But while there is a genuine methodological conflict here no-one questions that the Thousand Cultures are correct to expand their economic, social and political influence, the question is simply which of those three are most important and which can and should be left to the communities concerned. The limitations of the internal conflict as narrative strategy within the classic utopia have been described before and Barnes too finds it ultimately too problematic. Without warning, and rather implausibly, we discover an assassination to be a plot by the aintellects. By using internal conflict to drive his narrative, reducing real opposition to the status of a mcguffin, and ensuring that the remaining opposition — the Council for the Humanity on Earth — is shown to be misguided, “naturally” inept and easily defeated, while retaining the overarching paradigm that no-one could legitimately question the inevitability of the predicted future, Barnes succeeds in creating a dynamic utopia which is endlessly renewed by conflict while remaining essentially unchanged, underpinned by a belief that the market, and resistance to the market, are the only meaningful moves in the universe.

Barnes has, for all his attempt to write about historical process, succeeded in ending history in three different ways. Each of his cultures is at the end of its own history. His Thousand Cultures believes it can see the end of its own history, with the eventual assimilation of the human Diaspora: only the threat of aliens can provide any possible release from this fate. And finally the very economic cycles he predicts makes the future essentially pointless. If the cycle is so predictable, culture so fragile, and historical materialism so essential, then one is forced to ask whether there us any real history to be made, or whether the inhabitants of his world are merely colouring between lines already printed.



Works Cited

Moylan, Tom, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination New York: Methuen, 1986.

Davis, J. C., “Utopia, Science and Social Science’ in Eugene Kamenka, ed., Utopias Oxford: OUP, 1987, pp. 83-100.

Mendlesohn, Farah, “Impermanent Revolution: the Anarchic Utopias of Ken MacLeod”, Vector: the Critical Journal of the BSFA, Nov/Dec 1999, no. 208, pp. 8-12.

Mendlesohn, Farah, “The Romantic Utopias of Iain M. Banks” forthcoming, Proceedings of the 2001: A Celebration of British Sf conference, Liverpool, 2001.

Barnes, John, “How to Build a Future”, Analog March 1990, pp. 150-175.

Barnes, John, A Million Open Doors London: Orion, 1992.

Barnes, John, Earth Made of Glass New York: Tor, 1998.

Barnes, John, The Merchants of Souls New York: Tor, 2001.

Tunick, Mark, “Hegel on Political Identity and the Ties that Bind”, in Beyond Liberalism and Communitarianism: Studies in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, ed. Robert T. Williams New York: SUNY Press, 67-89.

McCarney, Joseph, Hegel on History London and New York: Routledge.

Neuhouser, Frederick, Foundations of Hegel’s Social Theory: Actualizing Freedom Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Harris, Errol E., “Hegel’s Theory of Sovereignty, International Relations, and War”, in Selected Essays on G.W.F. Hegel, edited by Lawrence S. Stepelevich New Jersey: Humanities Press, , 104-115.

Stillman, Peter G., “Person, Property, and the Civil Society in The Philosophy of Right”, in Selected Essays on G.W.F. Hegel, edited by Lawrence S. Stepelevich New Jersey: Humanities Press, , 116-129.

W. Ver Eecke, “Relation Between Economics and Politics in Hegel”, in Hegel’s Social and Political Thought: The Philosophy of Objective Spirit edited by Donald Philip Verene New Jersey: Humanities Press; Sussex: Harvester Press, 91-101.

This paper was written for the 2001: Celebration of British Sf conference run by the Science Fiction Foundation. Since then scholarship on Iain M. Banks has exploded, with two books out in 2016 alone. Had this paper made it to a book I am sure it would have had all sorts of references to utopian critical thinking. As it is, it is unpublishable in any context but this one.



Iain M. Banks: the dialectic of decadence and utopia.




Christopher Palmer, Bruce Gillespie and Paul Kincaid have all suggested that the Culture, sunk as it is in leisure and the pursuit of pleasure, is an essentially decadent society. This assertion rings false because it has to contend with the outspoken endorsement by the Culture of leisure and pleasure as its whole point, and the very mark of civilization. The headlong flight into hedonism and away from ‘reality’ is the Culture’sraison d’etre, not an indication of its decline. This is not to deny that the Culture is a decadent society. I propose to locate the decadence of the culture instead in its foreign policy: its expansionism, imperialism and attempts to ‘civilise’ the barbarians on its borders. If decadence can be defined as a drifting away from founding principles, then the Culture is decadent. It has secured the good society for its members at the expense of others and at the price of abandoning its commitment to communism and to a related understanding of the dynamics of social change. The Culture believes in participatory anarchy and assumes that no idea can be spread internally except from within the polity, yet in order to ‘civilise’ its neighbours it imposes upon them autocracy, monarchy and fascism. Its decadence is not that of late Imperial Rome but that of the late Soviet Union in its ‘period of stagnation’: complacent within, adventurist without.

The nature of the Culture is to be both insular and expansionist. On the one hand, free travel makes available the entire universe; on the other hand, contentment with what they have makes Culture citizens disinclined to travel. The great ships are analogous to American mobile homes — they may travel but the Culture travels with them. The result is an intellectually immobile society which values information but is uneasy with its consequences. The two issues profoundly affect the Culture’s dealings with outsiders.

Given that the Culture evolved from the uniting of (usually) mobile sentients, it is a relatively immobile society: while plates, orbitals, ships and asteroids may move, the sentients inside them (with the exception of members of Contact) stay within their own sphere. Within that sphere, individuals move about within a territorial confine, like traditional nomads. In Look to Windward the territorial confine, literally a settled round, is the Orbital. Within it movement is so constant that it has redefined holidays; as in the hyper mobile society of contemporary American, holidays become those occasions when friends and family meet, rather than the adventure of going away. Without trade, there seems little point to travel, and it is unclear to what extent cultural diversity between planets, Orbitals, and Ships — actually exists. One does not go elsewhere to find difference. The result is a Culture in which familiarity becomes the preferred mode. This inevitably influences foreign policy. The Culture has been MacDonaldized. Byr Genar Hofoen’s attraction to the Affronter culture (Excession) seems as much a search for something different as it is a search for this particular difference, yet given the relative stasis of Culture citizens, and the contrasting restlessness of the Culture itself, the desire for mobility and for the different is channeled into the pursuit of ever expanding borders: a desire to search out the difference becomes in practice its absorption and destruction in the name of progress. The Culture has perfected imperialism as a form of tourism.

That the ability to travel anywhere makes all anywheres pretty much the same is one consequences of the changed relationship between producer/distributor and the consumer/traveler. Another is the changing relationship between consumer and consumed. In a society of plenty, the technological mastery of the Culture has changed the relationship of the individual to the consumer good. Although the Culture relentlessly eschews exchange-value we can still assess the Culture in value terms: first, in terms of the value structures which thrive in the absence of conventional consumerism and commodification; second, in terms of the “value” of the Culture to other societies.

Theoretically, in a society in which all information is available, information should have no exchange value but the Culture, communists though they are, have commodified information: “All Contact craft are natural raiders. They’re made to love to be busy, to enjoy sticking their big noses into other people’s business…” (SoA, 94) The Arbitrary raids libraries and beaches, checks out mineral deposits, and stores pixels; it builds memories for itself and a memory bank for the culture. It has to replace the “need to feel useful” with the “desire to experience”. Even on a potentially interventionist mission, the real goal is the accumulation of real memory for a society for whom virtual memory is easily constructed (see LW). Yet this activity is essentially an engagement in the copying and counterfeiting of one the few coins which the Culture truly regards as valuable. The Culture is not merely a raider, it is in itself a shift in paradigm forced upon any society with which it chooses to engage. As the perpetrator of the paradigm shift — the agent which revalues a society’s commodity according to the demands and understandings of the Culture — it can itself be seen as an Outside Context Problem.

If Excession considers the relationship of the Culture to an Outside Context Problem then the narrative structures of the other novels deal with the Culture as someone else’s OCP. When dealing with the other societies, the moneyless Culture can still end up bankrolling: “The point is that every time we donate the Affront extra means of exchange we effectively become part of their expansionist drive.” (E, p. 98) Further, the value of the Culture, as cultural product, is much greater to the societies with which it comes into contact than they are to it. The Culture denizens’ ‘product’ is their very existence, which proves that a paradise in the real world is possible. The marginal utility of their way of life is greater to outsiders than it is to them. However, the “lifestyle” trade is a reversion to imperialist modes of exchange. In essence, when the Culture attempts to exchange culture for political and military aid it is engaged in inflationary behaviour, giving trade beads, that is trinket that matter little to the Culture, for valuable commodities such as identity, or fashion. The Culture is trading culture for peace, although as we shall see the trade is misjudged — and gains hegemony but it is incapable of seeing itself as “interested” because it truly believes that it has only to give, it has nothing to gain but trinkets. The Culture gives to Contacted species primarily an existence proof of utopia, and it gets from Contacted species an injection of fresh variety, which Contact itself destroys. Although what each side gives is worth a great deal more to the other than it is to itself, and thus each apparently gains, it’s not at all obvious that the exchange is fair, because it’s an intrinsically unequal exchange; exactly like the exchange of manufactured goods for raw materials which on Earth perpetuates the dependence of the backward societies on the advanced, a relationship regarded by some as imperialism.

If information is the basis of value in the Culture, then what happens in the mind is the only form of private property. The role of memory is both the underpinning of the Culture, and potentially its weak spot, because memories, like other currencies, can be corrupted. Gurgeh recognises this when he acknowledges that evidence of cheating would devalue the only commodity with which he trades, his reputation. (PG, p. 67) If the price of this utopia is self-knowledge, Gurgeh has failed to pay the price because of his self-deception, not because he cheated in a game. Elsewhere, the Culture purchases Zakalwe with money but like any culture rich in an item valued by another, they inadvertently flood the market, destabilise the currency and misunderstand the nature of value. It is clear that Zakalwe understands the dynamic when he puts his prices up despite Sma’s incomprehension of inflation (Use of Weapons, ch. 5)

If memory and thought are the only real commodities, it is inevitable that the otherwise anarchic Culture should hold this one area to be subject to customs that function as laws.


Any publicly filed report or analysis was theoretically available to anybody, but your own thoughts, your own recollections — whether you were a human, a drone or a ship Mind — were regarded as private. It was considered the ultimate in bad manners even to think about trying to read somebody else’s — or something else’s — mind. (E, p. 86)


The Grey Area is shunned for breaking this convention by entering other minds and manipulating an individual’s sole remaining commodity. However, as this is laid out, so too is the hypocrisy of the Culture, for the Culture are pirates, plundering the treasures of other nations, and defending themselves with the assertion that they value these products more than do the natives. The natives see only trinkets where the Culture sees their “true” value. The rules of ‘property’ apply only internally. The cracks in the structure begin to show.

Culture technology permits memory to be malleable, not simply to be distorted, but to be stored and savoured like a precious jewel:.


She stretched, suddenly tired, and shivered with a little flashback of the night’s exertions. And, like somebody holding something precious, and it slipping from their fingers, but then having the speed and the skill to catch it again before it hit the floor, she was able — somewhere inside herself — to dip down and retrieve the vanishing memory as it slipped back into the clutter and noise of her mind, and glanding recall she held it, savoured it, re-experienced it, until she felt herself shiver again in the sunlight…(UW, p. 38)


But not all memories, of course, are so enjoyable. Zakalwe spends much of Use of Weapons attempting to escape memory and to subvert it by appropriating the past of another. This is an escape not merely from guilt, but also from the possibility of redemption: it is paralleled by the Grey Area’s genocidal subject whom the ship reintroduces to his own and to his government’s crimes. The most important indicator of the sickness of genocide is the musings of the dreamer:


Those we disposed of; their torment lasted a few days, maybe a month or two, then it was over as quickly and efficiently as we could make the process.

Our suffering has gone on for a generation. (Excession, p, 49).


Manipulated memory leads to the distortion of compassion into self-pity. Both Zakalwe and the genocide have twisted events and understandings to recreate themselves as victims. In comparison, even the Empire of Azad is saner, accepting and celebrating its atrocities. Where do we draw the line between genuine mourning and this appropriation of victimhood? When is ritualistic mourning a celebration of empire rather than a fulfiment of utopia? In Look to Windward, the second of the two novels whose driving force is memory, Banks appears to be tackling this issue directly, through both the Hub, in mourning for the people it could not save in the Idiran war (LW, p. 277) and the Chelgrians, who blame the Culture, rather than internal social dynamics, for a genocidal war.

The most vivid depiction of this is in Look to Windward: the Hub is still in mourning for the people it couldn’t save in the war. Despite the fact that only 3,492 people out of 310 million died, as Hub says, “It’s always one hundred per cent for the individual concerned.” This, more than anything else, is the Culture’s saving grace. God pays attention to the sparrow. And this is why Hub recorded every one of those deaths. But he did it without permission, which to Ziller is slightly ghoulish. For the Hub, this is as much qualification for leadership/command as any. (LW, p. 277), but we are not allowed to simply accept this self-immolation. It is made evident to us (p. 280) that the Hub has been traumatised by this experience. It watched them die in “the slowest of slow motion” and torments itself. It is not a self-conscious scapegoat as are Contact and Special Circumstances: in denying the significance of numbers it has, ironically, lost itself in the romance of death.

While the Hub sees each individual life as an individual tragedy, the Chelgrians see each individual life as acquiring an intrinsic value which is less about the personality than about the number itself: numbers do matter. In terms of the morality of the Culture, the Chelgrian argument of death for death, in a never ceasing spiral, may well be the ultimate in immorality. However, the Chelgrians, while seeing value in each individual life, seek not to share responsibility, with which the Culture would have little problem, but to displace it entirely. The war becomes another’s fault, and the suffering of the Chelgrians becomes channeled into a claim for a particularly bloody compensation. Memory is manipulated to dispell the Chelgrians own sins, at the same time as the commodification of memory receives a new form in the sublimed Chelgrians who retain contact with their culture.

The ability of the Culture people to mourn can be taken two ways, first as a sign that they do still have empathy (LW, p. 8) — although the irritation this creates is a core part of the novel — or that mourning has become as much a ritual adventure as has the experience of other emotions. ‘“Tonight you dance by the light of ancient mistakes,” Ziller had said.’ (LW, p. 24.) Similarly, Kabe gazes at the humans: “Many were still staring up at the star. A few couples and larger groups were huddled together, individuals comforting one another. I didn’t think it would affect so many so deeply, the Momomdan thought. I thought they might almost laugh it off.” But this mourning is for the Culture’s history, that which made it great. Legitimated by power, it is the humility of the powerful: an acknowledgement of what it took to create the safe space in which utopia could exist — for those inside it.

Within this understanding there are further hypocrisies. As Zakalwe observes: “Public opinion in the Cluster could tolerate the technologically enhanced continuation of a pointless war so long as men, women and children died in relatively small, regular batches, but the thought of a million or so being incinerated at once, nuked in a city, was not to be tolerated.” (UW, p. 303) Although the Cluster is not the Culture, the role of Culture representatives in African wars in State of the Art suggests a shared understanding. In this context mourning becomes a celebratory commodity, the reception and understanding of death an indication of civilisation. But it is unclear whether the Culture has a sense of collective responsibility: Huylen (the Chelgrian general) comments that the failure to reign in Contact or Special Circumstances may make no sense to the Culture in which each is responsible for their own conscience and the scapegoat chooses his/her own role. (LW, ch. 14).

Yet while the Culture values the truth of memory, its widespread use of virtuality raises questions of in what that “truth” consists: virtual reality is so good that “it had long been necessary — at the most profoundly saturative level of manufactured — environment manipulation — to introduce synthetic cues in to the experience just to remind the subject that what appeared to be real really wasn’t.” (LW, p. 310). The Culture, while holding to a strong moral understanding, permits the existence of ill-defined areas. This theme is echoed elsewhere. For example: if memory remains one of the few important commodities, then the primary test of sapience is memory and individuality becomes a material asset. In the Culture, therefore, loss of individuality ought to be the greatest threat, and in Consider Phlebas this is clearly the case; the Changers are threatening not merely because they are spies, but because they threaten the sense of self, where self is marked only by appearance and memory. The significance of self is important enough that, upon abandoning her life to chase after Zakalwe, Diziet Sma insists that her replacement clone/ai does not actually sleep with her lovers. Consequently, Changers incite Culture citizens to violence, and despite their usefulness, the Changers are a protected species (both formally and informally) and disappearing fast.

The effects of plenty, comfort, and safety on the Culture are played out in by the increasing enchantment of the Culture with the romance of barbarism. One aspect of this is the extent to which the Culture preserves the primacy of the individual as historical actor. For all that this is a communistic society, emerging from economic determinacy if not actual class struggle, it has individualistic notions of power and influence, both in terms of the role of Special Circumstances (the chosen few, special operatives, the Culture’s KGB) and in how they proceed to influence worlds. This is at variance from their understandings of themselves, and of the process of change, but is shaped by, and reflects, their own misapprehensions of the internal workings of the Culture.

The Culture is clearly a participatory anarchy, in that individual humans sign up to Special Circumstances; groups and individuals drift away from, or directly secede from, the Culture. However there is actually very little participation by humans in the direction of foreign or (what in the Culture seems to be a branch of the same thing) economic policy; rather, these aspects of the Culture appear to the be purview of the Minds, a move justified by the speed at which the Minds can process information and communicate. Banks has asserted that it is technology which makes Utopia possible, and in fact inevitable. His solution to the perennial question of any utopia, “who cleans the sewers?”, is to turn to machinery, and, where possible, intelligent, sentient, machinery. Machinery which, like Fourier’s messy children, likes to clean sewers. In a less egalitarian society, such a proposal has the potential to embed slavery in the foundations of utopia. That the Culture has avoided this is due in part to its origins in a loose grouping of sentient species which from the beginning included sentient machines as actors in the polity (E, p. 104), and because of the affection with which the Minds are attached to the Culture and its humans.

In a Culture in which one’s vehicles become sentient and autonomous, it becomes incumbent upon the passengers to consult the driver about the destination. This transformation of the means of distribution transforms the relationship between the polity and its servants. As Horza argued in Consider Phlebas, the humans have abdicated their role in the democracy and reserve to themselves only the right to either facilitate the Minds’ decisions, or to opt out, or occasionally to act in opposition by seeking the support of a rival superpower, as demonstrated in Excessions22 in which the humans are never more than cats’ paws in the greater scheme of things. One consequence of this is that the humans of the Culture are happy to perform the same Jesuitical shift when dealing with cultures and people not their own.

In Player of Games, in Look to Windward and in Use of Weapons the Culture chooses repeatedly to put its trust in princes. The Empire of Azad falls to the machinations of one game player and an insane king; Zakalwe overturns empires and props up aristocracies. Banks has argued that this is coincident on the stories he has chosen to tell, but as the one time the Culture is seen to operate through the masses — on Chelgria — it all goes horribly wrong, it is difficult to judge this comment. Even when the Culture reaches beyond its immediate operatives, it contrives to operate through individuals: in the main plot of Use of Weapons this is Tsoldrin Beychae who “became president of the cluster following our involvement.” Beychae is important enough in the Culture’s scheme of things that in a time of crisis the unlikely solution is to bring him back. The Culture is caught up in the dreams of the Utopian everywhere: by converting Charlemagne, the Empire will follow. From Fourier’s advertisement for a capitalist to back his phalansteries; through Owen’s letters to Queen Victoria and to nineteenth century Quaker peace-making visits to the crowned heads of Europe this has been the very method which Marx derided. A free and equal society, such as the Culture purports to be, can only be created by people who have freed themselves. As the Internationale reminds us, ‘No saviours from on high deliver’ — but the Culture’s Contact agents are literally that, and in more than one sense, they don’t deliver.

By losing sight of this dialectic of self-emancipation, the Culture falls prey to imperialism. Like the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev period, it seeks to impose progress through military support for progressive tyrants. If the Culture cannot trust the mass of a population to change its culture, then it becomes incumbent upon the Culture to make the changes for them. Thus the decadence of the Culture is in its expansionism: in its increasing determination to make the Universe safe for itself, an intention which increasingly demands the forcible conversion of the “developing universe” to Culture standards. As with any missionary endeavour, the protection of Contact draws in Special Circumstances: first the bible, then the gun; first the Manifesto, then the military coup.

Traditionally, classical utopias have had stable borders and an unchanging culture. However, like Huxley’s Pala, the preservation of Utopia can come to require a form of defensive expansionism. Plato’s Republic expanded steadily as, like the Culture, it presumed that any right thinking barbarian would wish to join, and non-right thinking barbarians — such as Azad — needed to be taught the error of their ways. More’s Utopia, again like the Culture, employed mercenaries and paid them in the gold it disdained itself. The Culture, happy in its hedonism, truly believes that doing good is helping those less fortunate than oneself to live one’s own kind of life. They may be right, but those at the receiving end may still resent the process.

Of course, every intervention to make the universe safe for the Culture, only serves to destabilise the Universe. This places distinct limits on intervention; the Culture’s decadence is indicated to the extent to which it comes to justify non-intervention whether because it prefers to leave a society as a control group, or because it feels that the barbarians are too strong. The Darwinian consequence is that only the weak are liberated. The problem with the Affront is that “the Culture couldn’t in all conscience do anything about it.” (Eain, p. 165). Timing had put the Affront out of their reach as the Affront had come to their attention during the demilitarisation after the Idiran war. To fight yet another war, in addition to being unpopular, would have been to create of the Culture an outwardly imperial power.” But this means that it is in the interests of the Culture to intervene early, in the potentially threatening culture. Suddenly, the Culture appears as itself a potential threat to everyone else. The Culture is held in check, if it is held in check at all, only by its own fears: of the unwillingly liberated and the body bags.

We might be forced into a high-profile intervention against the empire; it would hardly be war as such because we’re way ahead of them technologically, but we’d have to become an occupying force to control them, and that would mean a huge drain on our resources as well as morale…The people of the empire would lose by uniting against us instead of the corrupt regime which controls them, so putting the clock back a century or two, and the Culture would lose by emulating those we despise; invaders, occupiers, hegemonists. (PG, 79)

As Horza points out right at the beginning of the Culture sequence, they are, whether they will or no, an imperialist power, but one whose imperialism is cloaked in Romanticism and results in a series of “defensive” wars for a “way of life”. While the ships’ names serve as a long running joke, they are also a part of this euphemistic thought-system, nicely paraphrased in the renaming of ship classes such as a demilitarised Rapid Offensive Unit renamed a “very fast picket.” (in UW, ch.1) To give the culture credit, both Sma and Skaffen-Amitskaw are rather embarrassed by the euphemism, but whether the ships are is another matter. Once again, it is our outsider, Horza, who foreshadows this development for the alert reader.


In ten thousand years the Idirans would be just another civilisation, getting on with their own lives. The current era of conquests might be fondly remembered, but it would be irrelevant by then, explained away by some creative theology. They had been quiet and introspective before; so they would be again.

The Culture was different. Horza could see no end to its policy of continual escalating interference. It could easily grow for ever, because it was not governed by natural limitations. Like a rogue cell, a cancer with no “off” switch in its genetic composition, the Culture would go on expanding for as long as it was allowed to. (CP, 159).


In the early years of the Culture this is much more clearly and forcefully acknowledged. Balveda (CP, ch. 2) is fearful that in the attempt to prevent the expansion and cultural domination of the Idirans, the Culture will spread homogeneity. In order to fight an enemy that worships authoritarianism and secrecy, the Culture creates Special Circumstances which


…had about it too an atmosphere of secrecy (in a society that virtually worshipped openness) which hinted at unpleasant, shaming deeds, and an ambience of moral relativity (in a society which clung to its absolutes: life/good, death/bad; pleasure/good, pain/bad) which attracted and repulsed at once, but anyway excited.” (CP, p. 30).


The construction of Special Circumstances codifies previously vague aspirations and dismantles the charm and graciousness of the unconscious expansionist. Yet simultaneously, Special Circumstances becomes the repository of guilt, the necessary scapegoat. Sharing Balveda’s fear of becoming like the enemy, the narrator of “A Gift from the Culture” has left the Culture, “because the evangelical, interventionist morality of Contact sometimes meant doing just the sort of thing we were supposed to prevent others doing; starting wars, assassinating…all of it, all the bad things…” (SA, p. 3) For this narrator, it is the cloaking itself that is problematic: “I refused to live with such hypocrisy and chose instead this honestly selfish and avaricious society, which doesn’t pretend to be good, just ambitious.” (SA, p. 13)

But the real problem is that Special Circumstances excuses the rest of the Culture. How comforting it is to be able to say “but we didn’t know.” But, as the Grey Area has already made clear, this is not an acceptable excuse; that by Look to Windward it appears to have become so is perhaps the most significant indicator of decadence within the Culture. The Culture survives because it regards itself as incomplete, but this incompleteness leads it towards the decadence of imperialism, the assumption of its own superiority, and forced assimilation. Its incompletely-acknowledged faults become someone else’s problem.



Works Cited:

Consider Phlebas, London: Macmillan, 1987.

The Player of Games. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Use of Weapons, London: Orbit, 1990.

The State of the Art, London: Orbit, 1991.

Excession, London: Orbit, 1996.

Look to Windward, London: Orbit, 2000.

This article was first published in Farah Mendlesohn and Andrew M. Butler, 2003. The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod (Foundation Studies in Science Fiction, 3). Science Fiction Foundation: Reading. ISBN: 0-903007-03-7. 185pp. It is published here lightly re-edited as a companion piece to the previous three chapters.



Impermanent Revolution: The Anarchic Utopias of Ken MacLeod


Whether Ken MacLeod’s first four novels, the Fall Revolution Quartet, form a coherent utopian project is open to argument. He himself has denied it (see the interview by Roz Kaveney on Amazon.co.uk), while he clearly pays homage to a number of utopian texts. In The Cassini Division, for example, all but one of the chapter headings are the titles of utopian novels. MacLeod is engaged in a process of world-building which hinges on extrapolative, hard-edged political sf. The nature of humanity and the societies we are capable of creating are fundamental to the speculative nature of his novels. However, a number of utopian theorists, in particular Darko Suvin, have asserted that it is no longer possible to write a true utopian text: in our post-modern age the fundamental structures of the utopia — the totalising idea, the maintenance of an absolute value position and a true belief in its possibility — are no longer viable. So can we consider the Fall Revolution Quartet as a contribution to the utopian canon?

Those who have read Delany’s Triton (1976) would find the existence of a post- modern utopia plausible. In a paper given at the A Millennium of Utopias conference held at the University of East Anglia, June 1999, Ruth Levitas asserted that a postmodernist utopia would need to embrace pluralism, without becoming patholog- ical, and would need to envisage utopia as a process rather than representation. Triton clearly meets her definition, but so too do the four books that comprise the Fall Revolution Quartet: The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division and The Sky Road. In addition, they also seem to meet many of Suvin’s demands for classical utopian literature. Although they present four alternative possibilities, they are all structured around the same, totalising idea: the creation of absolute liberty. While MacLeod may be more convinced by some of the programmes he presents than by others, the value position he adopts — the idealisation of liberty — is clear and consistent, and in his interviews and correspondence he has displayed the political engagement with these beliefs that the classic utopia requires. The novels continually test ways of being human while continually asserting that the human state is positive. They are part of, and extend, the utopian tradition.

One major flaw of much sf has been its authors’ inability to extrapolate social change with the same credibility as it has brought to technological change. Too many writers have assumed that the future is an unending journey into American liberal-capitalism and have been unable make the leap to encompass intellectual change within their social schema. In MacLeod’s novels technological change drives widespread social dislocation and intellectual reconfiguration: it creates cognitive dissonance out of which new possibilities emerge. The ability to draw such new patterns, to outline such cognitive dissonance should be, but rarely are, crucial to the sf project. It should be in alien world sf, as in the fiction of, say, David Brin or Mary Doria Russell. It is relatively rare to look for it, never mind to find it, in near future, extravagantly humano-centric sf.

MacLeod’s novels work at a number of levels: they explore revolutions, posit societies, challenge the meaning of human agency and freedom and continually question how our choice of societal structure affects the technology we choose to employ. However, in this chapter I intend to concentrate very narrowly on the ideological underpinnings of MacLeod’s utopias.1

In The Star Fraction, Britain is divided into semi-autonomous city states, each suspicious of the other and ruled over by the Hanoverian regime. The US/UN controls technological research and the political behaviour of other governments and a revolution, planned for over twenty years, is reaching maturity.

In The Stone Canal, we learn more about the world revolution, but the main plot hinges on the rôle of Jon Wilde, once a revolutionary in London, now a catalyst for social change on the colony world of New Mars. Artificial intelligence, just one small thread of The Star Fraction, here comes to the fore as the gynoid Dee fights for recognition of her sapience. Meanwhile the colonists wonder if they can risk reviving the uploaded personalities of “the fast folk”.

In The Cassini Division, these fast folk form the centre of the plot. The viral attacks of the Jovians, beings evolved from uploaded humans, form the core of what threatens at times to become a James Bond pastiche, complete with a countdown to armageddon courtesy of a deflected asteroid.

Finally, in The Sky Road, the protagonist seeks to write a history of the final revolution and finds himself caught up in a plot to install an artificial intelligence in a prototype rocket, the same artificial intelligence that may have brought down the previous world order.

In far too many fictional utopias, the political intentions usurp the story-telling aim of the form: description of utopia overtakes plot. In MacLeod’s novels, the construction of the plot illuminates the brickwork of the utopia, from casual references to a Summerhill style “school” on the beach (CD 1: 14), to the shock-horror reactions of building workers to the threat of 2% inflation ( SR 3: 44). Too many utopian novels also avoid conflict and methodologies of conflict resolution, whereas MacLeod explores this. His avoidance of these two flaws can be traced directly to the political ideological paradigms that are embedded in the novels.

Each of MacLeod’s utopias is built upon a different anarchist theory. He asserts that the political ideology behind these revolutions is “[…] just boringly orthodox Marxism — capitalism […] doomed to collapse into socialism or barbarism — combined with a boringly orthodox bourgeois scepticism about socialism” (MacLeod 1999b). However, the outcome of these revolutions — the failure of the revolutionary élite to secure power in the face of a wider social upheaval — seems more consistent with the Russian anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin’s assertions that political revolution, led by an élite, can succeed only in turning itself into a state. The truly successful revolutions in these novels are the social upheavals that derail the revolutions: mass social revolutions that the state (whether capitalist or not) can no longer suppress through political means. Such revolutions, perhaps inevitably, are conducted with violence. In addition, all the revolutions result in armed societies. If you believe utopia is synonymous with peace then MacLeod’s texts are not utopian; but if utopia means liberty, then violence may be part of the package.

The Fall Revolution Quartet tries to show how a viable anarchy might function, but unlike many utopian authors MacLeod is anxious to provide a choice of models: this multiplicity of models is in itself crucial to any anarchist project. To insist on only one model, only one truth for utopia, would be to revert to ideological authoritarianism. MacLeod outlines for us four potential or actual utopias: a Trotskyite utopia (which never comes to pass and which I will not be considering here) in The Star Fraction, a libertarian, anarcho-capitalist society in both isolated and universalist form in The Stone Canal, a socialist Stirnerite anarchy in The Cassini Division, and in The Sky Road, an ecotopia which may or may not be anarchic or libertarian, depending on one’s definition. The common threads between the three established utopias are the rejection of the state as the primary means of organisation, and the assertion of utopia as a necessarily civilised and technological project, rather than as a retreat to primitivism.

In principle each utopia provides unlimited freedom, but in reality each asserts a paradigm that limits the range of acceptable and functional behaviour. What distinguishes two of the three utopias is that they construct social space for deviance. This is most obvious in The Cassini Division, in which (with a nod towards William Morris), the capitalist non-co-operators live across the river in the villages and hamlets of London, but it is intrinsic also in the balkanised structure of The Sky Road.

The most impressive of these three utopias is the anarcho-capitalist one, and it is impressive because, in the literary context, it is the most unusual. Fictional co- operative societies are usually based on the assumption that all human beings are warm and generous, but we are not quite so accustomed to the anarchy based on self-interest and contractarianism. We have three versions of this co-operative society: the proto- anarchy of Norlonto in The Star Fraction, restricted to one “country” located in central London and reliant on the good will of its neighbours for its existence (although supported by its nuclear deterrent, bought in the free market); the universalist and therefore unavoidably coercive anarchy of New Mars (in The Stone Canal); and the micro-anarchy of the non-co-operator London villages in The Cassini Division which functions as a cross between an open prison (for ideas rather than people) and a reservation.

Anarcho-capitalism is a morality-free paradigm, in itself a departure from the assumptions which usually construct utopias: human beings are neither good or bad, but are individuals and therefore have a capacity to make decisions and agreements in their own best interest. This may contradict an outsider’s assessment of what is best interest (Dworkin 1983). Models for formalising the operation of this “best interest” have varied but the apparently dominant one, and the form used here, is contractarianism. This empowers individuals (and sometimes groups) to negotiate agreements over services; such services extend through education and street cleaning to law enforcement. It assumes two things: that enforcement of contracts emerges from the need to negotiate future contracts in good faith, and that every individual is in a position to negotiate as an equal. The fallacy of the latter point is obvious but is acknowledged and accepted in these texts. Paradoxically, inequality, even slavery, may well be intrinsic to utopia: Moh Kohn argues gloomily. “It comes with the property” (SF 11: 176-177), and on New Mars no-one prevents another from selling themselves.

There appears to be no provision for the education and health of the poor (although Norlonto has a number of charities which offer military defence to those without militia contracts, and free access to the cable networks), but the crucial factor is that in the absence of the state, there is no facility for the rich (in power and/or capital) to enforce their will, none of the false reasoning of laissez-faire which reserved to the government the right to be selective as to which intervention it regarded as legitimate (which asserts, for example, that unions impede trade but that employers may combine to resist employee demands). On New Mars, the isolated colony world at the end of the Malley Mile, if a group can hold together long enough, and the employer can find no other source of labour, there is no state to intervene on their behalf. If one side resorts to violence, this will not be prevented, but neither will a violent response; there are no policemen to rule striking a “breach of the peace” or strike breaking a “restoration of law and order”. In the absence of state intervention, it is in the interests of both sides to negotiate: there are no false supports for the non-co-operator. It is also not safe to be an exploiter: while no-one is prevented from selling themselves, and there are no protective labour laws, neither is there anyone to prevent the exploited taking revenge, as Ax points out when he acts against his clients (SC 7: 95). Contractarianism is extended to the operation of the law, as Jon Wilde is pleased to discover. In a society in which recourse to the law is simply another contract, no one can be forced to go to law, but the incentive to go is in achieving a reputation for civilised negotiation: thus Wilde’s victory over his old comrade and enemy, Dave Reid, is in part one of public relations. It is Reid who fails to play the game within the rules of the contract and attempts to open fire in the court room, an action which costs him future contracts. The impartiality of the law in a contractarian society is ensured by long-term planning and good business practices. If both sides must agree to a choice of judge, and both sides are paying a publicly negotiated rate, there is little incentive for a judge to develop a long-term and sustained prejudice on an issue. Litigants would simply go elsewhere. The judge, Eon Talgarth, cannot incorporate either his prejudice for machines or his hostility to Jon Wilde in either his reasoning or judgement without jeopardising the standing of his court. Impartiality is ensured by long range self-interest. Yet, hidden beneath the language of contractarianism and self-interest is the extent to which these considerations and the incentive towards contractarian resolution rather than conflict creates bonds within society. The citizens of New Mars, while ostensibly individuals, are actually enmeshed in a network of contracts and relationships.

The underlying paradigm therefore is a combination of free consent and free action underpinned by the belief that impartiality, freedom and justice can be bought by the individual, that these things have intrinsic quantifiable value and that the individual is sovereign if all other restraints are removed. The system is held to shape behaviour, and not the other way around: the “invisible hand” of the market functions to structure the behaviour of individuals. The false logic of statist capitalism that asserts innate human nature as the driving force of the market system is missing and with it the “moral” assertion that some kinds of intervention (usually on behalf of the state or its allies) can be justified.

Back in London, in New Mars’ distant past, the freedom to purchase one’s fundamental needs functions to purchase Norlonto’s survival in the face of ideological opposition. Norlonto “sells” free speech to its more repressive neighbours, along with the products of free speech (science and technology). Even the competitor utopia of fundamentalist Beulah City cannot wholly survive without Norlonto. That Norlonto’s freedom is bought through its usefulness, and not through its weaponry is underlined when Norlonto loses its nuclear deterrent as the price of survival. What is useful cannot easily be repressed and this extends, of course, beyond the basic needs of a society to the provision of luxury. On New Mars or in Norlonto if a market can be found for a product it will be produced. In the socialist world of The Cassini Division anarcho- capitalism is itself the niche product: it can exist in London at the heart of the Solar Union because it is needed as an ideological escape route in much the same way as Norlonto was needed. Although the need is less recognised — luxury, whether material or ideological is rarely acknowledged as a necessity — those who can supply it (Jewish peddlers, Asian shop-keepers in Kenya, tinkers in The Sky Road) are often resented. So that although the non-co villages of The Cassini Division operate as a safety valve in the system it is never clear either to the reader or to the inhabitants of the Solar Union who represents the greater threat to whom.

The world of The Cassini Division is deeply deceptive on two levels. Our first acquaintance with it leads us to believe we are in a classic utopia of collective harmony in which the individual is subsumed into the collective, aided by the novel’s opening pastiche of Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890). Parties are open to all, schooling takes place on a beach in which children choose their own education, and adults are clearly willing to give up their time to teach. There is a co-operative approach to the provision of airport refreshments, etiquette includes judging precisely how much reading to take from a communal library before going on a journey, and the political system appears to rest on self-selective participation. The political organisation appears superficially to be that of a liberal democracy but with all permitted to take part. Involvement is clearly voluntary but almost all seem willing to volunteer. There is a suggestion that no-one represents anyone else, but that anyone may elect themselves to any rôle. That some of the apparent collectivity is a response to an on-going cold war is mildly disturbing but its ramifications take a while to emerge.

Behind all this apparent collectivity, however, is an extreme individualism. The world of The Cassini Division rests on an ideology that claims not to be an ideology: the True Knowledge. In one sense its claim is justified in that the True Knowledge focuses not on what to think, but how to think. It offers a structured paradigm for decision-making rather than an economic or political programme for material construction or the shaping of ideology. Built on the eclectic selection of texts available to imprisoned revolutionaries (SR 2: 22) in which Darwin is prominent, the True Knowledge, one comes to realise, has little in common with classic socialism and the apparent collectivity does not supersede individual sovereignty. The True Knowledge asserts that, first, there is no such abstraction as “man” and that, second, one can only act in one’s own interests. All choices can be made only in terms of whether others are acting in their own interest, but this does not necessarily create atomisation. Instead, it is possible to exist in a community of flowing and fluid egoist associations (Stirner 1847) in which individuals choose to associate with others. Thus, it is in one’s own interest to ensure an educated populace and what one loans today will be available to one later. Contractarian purchases are not necessary because people are linked instead by long- term notions of self-interest and a practical mode of exchange (rather than trade) that seems to operate as material karma. One co-operates not because this is intrinsically good — this is a value free system — but because it is in one’s own interests.

However, as Ellen May Ngwethu (the principal protagonist of The Cassini Division) discovers, to stray from others’ interpretation of the True Knowledge is to leave the body politic. In this way it is just as rigid and controlling as were the assumptions of American liberalism in the Cold War of the 1950s — it imposes a disturbing sense of compulsory conformity not evident on New Mars.

Unlike socialism, which has traditionally attempted to undermine the binary division of “Us” and “Them”, the Stirnerite socialism of this world reinforces the division. In contrast to the majority of utopias that either ignore fundamental differences or displace conflict off stage, in the Stirnerite utopia of The Cassini Division fundamental conflict is assumed and built in to the successful and generally peaceful functioning of society. Conflicts of interest are crucial to this utopia. In this society, “Us” is whoever supports my interest, and “Them” are those who do not.

The cold war status of the Earth serves to reinforce this division, creating a cosy communality of mankind that obscures the more subtle divisions which are played out within the “rules” of the True Knowledge. The True Knowledge, while emphasising individual sovereignty, asserts that benefit is to be gained from identification with the whole. Ellen falls outside her colleagues’ understanding of the True Knowledge, not because she rejects its paradigms but because her changing definition of “us and them” removes their incentive to freely associate with her. In addition, humans have no incentive to associate with non-humans. But equally, in the absence of the false ideology of Party which asserts (irrational) loyalty now and forever, Ellen’s rejection only lasts as long as the crisis. A Stirnerite egoist can join a party, but, “… he cannot let himself be embraced and taken up by the party. To him the party remains all the time nothing but a gathering: he is one of the party, he takes part” (Stirner 1995: 221). The association cannot formally exclude people: only individuals can refuse to associate with other individuals and as the dynamic which supports social exclusion usually requires a person or party coercing others into maintaining the exclusion, in the absence of this paradigm of power and gang allegiance such long term exclusion is impossible to maintain. Further, in a world structured around incentive, once an event has passed, it is irrational to exclude potentially beneficial future associations. When Ellen’s arguments are proved correct, there is no ideology of apostasy to prolong her exclusion from voluntary association of the Solar Union and she is welcomed back into the fold. This is a profoundly individualist paradigm but one which sees the individual acting in her own interest in bipolar terms, as threat or ally.

At the same time, the utopian paradigm of the Solar Union removes some of the tensions and structures that force the creation of community. In the Solar Union, associations are made in the context of “now” whereas on New Mars an individual’s contractarian “history” forms the premise of all future bargains: the paradigm of anarcho-capitalism maintains a much more neutral understanding of the individual.

The fourth of the utopias, the semi-pastoral utopian Scotland of The Sky Road, is the most assertively communal, and it is also the most regional. Both New Mars and the Earth of The Cassini Division, for all their anti-statist stance, have the whiff of world government about them. The ecotopia of The Sky Road consists of a series of cantons, inter-locking guild systems and the occasional congress. Sarcastic comments (SR 3: 44, 5: 76) confirm the generally anti-EU/super-state tenor of The Star Fraction. Currencies are small-scale and local and succeed in keeping inflation below two per cent. Like colonial America, it rests its system on the existence of a Jeffersonian independent yeoman and artisan culture and the involvement of every independent man in the local political system — and as far as I can tell, in this book, MacLeod seems to mean “man”.

The political paradigm of the novel rests on the importance of individual honour reinforced by community loyalty to the honour code: murder is visited with vengeance. Pastoralism is not here associated with pacifism as it so often has been. Individual honour also involves individual agency, and the conspiracy of the plot hinges around the attempt of two of the characters to abolish the collective decision-making process, in much the same way that Ellen does. The difference is that while Ellen is acting within the paradigm of her world — do what you can get away with — Fergal and Merrial are not. Merrial indeed continues to pursue the statist-revolutionary policies of her Trotskyist youth, convinced, many years after their failure and the success of a mass revolution, that the revolutionary élite does know best.

Of the three utopias, The Sky Road is the least comfortable as utopia in that for all the cantonisation there is the sense of a community control of morals and behaviour that is not found on New Mars or in The Cassini Division. In addition, it is rather difficult, after the hard-edged realities of the first three books, to believe that MacLeod is actually convinced by the society he creates for The Sky Road.^2^ There is a cosiness to this world rooted in the doctrines of Winstanley and Morris, of Godwin, Proudhon and Tolstoy which, while superficially attractive, alert us to the possibility of future repression by friends and neighbours, caste-systems and witchhunts. This utopia may (or may not) harbour a snake in the apple tree.

The Sky Road is also MacLeod’s only primitivist utopia. Primitivism has held enormous attractions for some utopian thinkers: the conviction that the past was better than the present is a common fallacy shared by Morrisian socialists and Jeffersonians as well as by writers of Arthurian romance writers and eco-feminists — who always seem to overlook the sexism of agrarian and countercultural communities. Much of the blame for this woolly thinking can be laid at the door of the French Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau, who secularised the Christian mythos of Eden and the Fall into the “state of nature” in which we were without laws and needed none. Even the cold water of Darwinian theory has not been able to root out this particular meme, but from at least the nineteenth century utopian and socialist thought began to argue that the way to the more just society might lie in the embracing of technology rather than in its rejection, that the capacity for utopia is linked to civilisation not primitivism, and that technology can shape the nature of the utopia as it evolves (see Walford).

In the first three books of the sequence it is absolutely clear that MacLeod embraces this belief. For Moh Kohn, the principal protagonist, the Green vision is unholy: “‘Give me deep technology any day. They don’t scare me. I’m damned if I’ll crawl, my children’s children crawl on the earth in some kind a fuckin harmony with the environment. Yeah, till the next ice age or the next asteroid impact […]’” (SF 6: 90). The Greens, withdrawing from the cities and from the benefits of technology to live closer to nature are antithetical to civilised society: their culture denies free speech and free activity and their idea of the future is one which restricts humanity to the rôle of symbiont on the planetary surface. They are, quite literally, the barbarians at the gate (MacLeod 2000). Nothing that we see in the first three books suggests that MacLeod finds the idea of an ecotopia attractive.

The principal assertion of the first three books clearly supports the idea that utopia needs deep technology. With sufficiently high levels of technology one can circumvent the endless debates about who deals with the trash in utopia. The Cassini Division’s pastoralism is supported by nano-tech, while its steam-engine computers (with their need for large supplies of water) reinforce a thoroughly deceptive agrarian image. The New Mars colony of The Stone Canal rests absolutely on the harnessing of technology both to permit colonisation and to take on the work no individual wants to do. However, one consequence is a settlement in which four-fifths of the built-up area is mechanical, whose sole purpose is to support the other fifth. If the machines are recognised as autonomous, a distinct possibility by the end of the novel, the utopian status of the society is brought into question unless, to return to my earlier assertion, the novel can be framed within Ruth Levitas’s conceptualisation of the postmodernist utopia as process. The next stage of New Mars is clearly the incorporation or rejection of machine intelligence into the anarcho-capitalist utopia, reinforcing the connection between utopia and technology. Ironically, its internal chaos with the ability to embrace and absorb the agitator may prove more resilient than the more apparently stable systems depicted in The Cassini Division and The Sky Road.

The primitivism of The Sky Road seems at first an attempt to test the proposition that certain levels of technology are necessary to achieve utopia, but it seems more likely that it is the proof, a denial of the Green project. For all the initial pre- Raphaelitism of the opening scene — the fairground comes straight from endless and indistinguishable genre fantasies — we are rapidly exposed to the dissonance of electric trains to Glasgow, efficiently lit streets and a rocket ship waiting to take off from the ship-yard. However, like the Eloi, the mainstream inhabitants of The Sky Road are reliant on the scientific knowledge of “tinkers”, outcast others, for their standard of living: they are content to set themselves up as arbiters of acceptable versus sinful logic while keeping their own hands clean. They engage in what George McKay (1999) has termed the “punk-DIY” of the Green movement which validates computers and faxes while rejecting the banks and multinational corporations that make them possible. Like the Morlocks, the tinkers operate the technology but have lost much of the scientific theory that would permit creativity and growth.

This is not the eco-topia that the Reverend Jordan, one Beulah City apostate last seen in The Star Fraction, the later creator of spiritual rationalism (a version of Winstanleyism that would pass unnoticed in any Quaker Meeting) envisaged, for it is too industrial, but neither is it a particularly dynamic world in its own terms. It is oddly insular, lacking the biting curiosity of the other utopias, and fundamentally conformist. In The Sky Road MacLeod seems to have abandoned faith in individual risk and agency in favour of the demanding protection of a mutualist society.

The tinkers alert us to the perils of this society. They exist courtesy of a religious injunction to tolerance; for all their technological superiority they are curiously vulnerable. Their protection relies on the assumption both of usefulness and, crucially, the interpretation of religious texts. It resonates with the racism of philo-semitism that advocated protecting the Jews so that their conversion might bring the messiah. Not far down the Sky Road, one suspects, might lie pogrom and the cleansing of “tinkerish” technologies: the “Us” versus “Them” rhetoric which justifies the Green attack on the train in chapter twelve has permeated a whole society. To be “Them” may not carry the danger that it does in The Cassini Division but protection, of a sort, can be obtained from reservations and concentration camps after all. The closer one reads The Sky Road, the less bucolic and the more sinister this utopia begins to appear.

One of the traditional tasks of utopianists has been to concern themselves with methods to preserve or shape the morality of their societies. That this is not necessarily one of MacLeod’s concerns is indicated repeatedly in the existence of slavery and exploitation in the first two books and the blatant rejection of morality as any kind of useful guiding principle in the third. However, while morality may be rejected as one of the keystones of these societies, it still plays a rôle in their structure. While internal morality is fundamental to Godwin and Tolstoy’s understanding of human nature, a wider, social morality has had a problematic place within anarchist thinking. The Manifesto of Libertarian Communism expresses the problem thus: that while morals are time and space specific, “they are expressed in very strict rules which allow no deviation in any sense […and tend] towards inertia” (Fontenis 1955). More importantly, perhaps, “even when moralities do not openly express the division of societies into classes or castes they are used by privileged groups to justify and guarantee their domination” (Fontenis 1955). Bakunin saw morality as fundamental to the statist project. “…Machiavelli arrived quite logically at the idea that the State was the supreme goal of human existence, that it had to be served at any cost, and that since the interest of the State stood above everything else, a good patriot should not recoil from any crime in order to save the state.” In MacLeod’s work, the difficulty is sometimes to identify who, what and where is “the state”. Often, as with the Kingdom, the state seems too weak to manipulate morality; Myra Godwin’s ISWTR is unconcerned with morality, and the Earth of The Cassini Division regards morality as a dirty word which only serves to disguise its core morality.

Once one realises that much “morality” is ideology designed to reinforce oppressive structures (whether secular or religious) and that the sole purpose of the state is survival, it becomes possible to understand the laughter which greets Malley in The Cassini Division when he suggests to Ellen May Ngwethu that the decision to wipe out the uploaded Fast Folk is immoral. But if the Cassini Division (the military association, not the text) pretend to a world without morality, it is deluded. The point is that in this society, “the state” exists only within individuals as far as it exists at all. In 1845 in The Ego and His Own, Stirner set out to demolish not merely religious faith but also any doctrine that seemed to suggest that “no man is an island.” Even abstract notions of Mankind seem to merely revive the notion of a false collectivism; an enforced commonality (Woodcock 1963: 91). If we are indeed islands, then the only moral obligation we owe is to ourselves. Extending contractarianism to its ultimate logic. Stirner asserted that we all, as individuals, have the moral duty to only to ourselves, and Stirner is not absolutely convinced that we even owe ourselves anything. We certainly have no duty to ourselves to act “morally”. The only acceptable motivation is our own best interest as we chose to interpret it at any given time. We can make contracts and agreements where we please but (and this is where he differed from Godwin) we may also please to terminate them as it best fits our own interests. Thus the joining of the Cassini Division is a matter of pleasure in association that may be terminated when the pleasure ends. We are not obliged to observe the interests of others. Moral pressure from the community becomes, instead, Stirner’s assertion that we can choose our own associations. Allegiances and loyalties in the modern sense, as I have already discussed, with their accompanying notions of programmes and disloyalty, are irrelevant. An explanation of the True Knowledge as developed by inmates of a labour camp runs as follows: life is aggression, and successful life is successful aggression […] Nothing matters, except what matters to you. Might makes right, and power makes freedom. You are free to do whatever is in your power, and if you want to survive and thrive you had better do whatever is in your interests. If your interests conflict with those of others, let the others pit their power against yours, everyone for their selves. If your interests coincide with those of others, let them work together with you, and against the rest (CD 5: 89-90).

The absence of moral community other than self-interest frames the principal narrative: the plan to destroy the fast folk. If Ellen and the Cassini Division could get away with destroying another sapient race, so be it. In the absence of the moral imperative to respect other life forms, self-interest revolves around whether a people are exploitable (at which point the consequences of exploitation (reprisal and revenge) might invalidate the proposition) or whether there is a risk they may challenge humanity. As Ellen points out, toleration of a potentially superior species is a romanticism humanity cannot afford. She is aghast when Tony appears to accept Malley’s objection to the destruction of the fast folk: “‘Wouldn’t that make the impact event like, say, some troop of chimps using rocks to beat out the brains of the first humans?’” Her reply is succinct. “‘All the more reason to do it […] Look where not doing it got the chimps’” (CD 5: 88-89). Sapience thus exerts little moral pressure on an adherent of the True Knowledge.

On first reading it seems as if MacLeod has got away with writing a sympathetic fascist utopia (and I’m still open to arguments in that direction). Ellen, in rhetorical mode informs us:


We had founded our idealism on the most nihilistic implications of science, our socialism on crass self-interest, our peace on our capacity for mutual destruction, and our liberty on determinism. We had replaced morality with convention, bravery with safety, frugality with plenty, philosophy with science, stoicism with anaesthetics and piety with immortality. The universal acid of the true knowledge had burned away a world of words, and exposed a universe of things.

Things we could use (CD 5:90).


Successful existence in a Stirnerite anarchy, while emphasising self-knowledge and self- interest still requires co-operation with those who, however temporarily, share interests with oneself. It also requires an assumption that others are equally active in the assertion of their interests. While Stirner worked on the assumption that one will do what one can get away with, he was clear that one should assume opposition. Thus the primary paradigm of a Stirnerite utopia, for all the levels of co-operation it may engender, is permanent suspicion. The very transience of the “us” versus “them” alignment at any given time deviates from fascism in that it refuses to acknowledge arbitrary divides and is a million times more rational. The fluctuating nature of these alignments is disguised for much of the novel only by the presence of an external enemy and is revealed only by the reaction of the Solar Union to Ellen’s choices at the very conclusion of the novel. There is also the question, left unanswered by MacLeod, as to whether the egoist association of the Solar Union will survive the loss of the common enemy: its “precarious internal and external equilibria” (MacLeod 1999a) was balanced by the associations and allegiances of the war. While the capitalists of New Mars provide a new threat the nature of egoist association implies an inevitable change in the associationalist structure.

All this stands in marked contrast to the second of the moral utopias, The Sky Road. Far from existing in a state of distrust and suspicion, at times, Clovis, the hero of The Sky Road, seems almost pathetically naïve and trusting. Although this functions in part to emphasise the hero’s youth and path to maturity, his apparent innocence is less to do with his age than with the structures of his society. Where the True Knowledge rejected morality and asserted the intrinsic individuality of all, rational religion asserted the essential interconnectedness of all. The True Knowledge emphasised that one was restricted only by what one could get away with, the rational religion restricts what one can get away with through the communal acceptance of a network of community ties — ties one cannot choose but are automatically obligated by. Thus Clovis is not naïve when he outfaces Fergal’s threat of violence: he is acting within a paradigm in which his death would be of immediate concern to others, not because of law, but through the honour code which stresses this network. Fergal’s threats therefore, operate to exclude Fergal from the moral shape of society, withdrawing society’s protection while withholding the freedom that such a consequence might offer in the Solar Union. One caveat here, however is that the strongest message of this utopia is that it constructs its norms through the exclusion of some sections of society. As I implied earlier, it is not clear that Fergal and the other tinkers ever benefit from this network — they function as a protected species not as participants, in much the same way as the non-cos of the Solar Union. There is less evidence, however, that it is possible to leave the tinkers for mainstream society, compared to the ease with which non-co youngsters apparently join the Solar Union. The “us and them” imperative of The Cassini Division still exists but it is perhaps more subtly disguised.

The paradigms established in the different utopias produce differing understandings of human agency and morality, but they also produce fundamentally different understandings of how to express human value. In The Sky Road humanity is valued in common, as part of an inseparable network of life and community. The downside, that this can actually serve to diminish the value of the individual, is made clear in the Green raids on trains and towns in the last years of the old regime. Collective mentalities can find it a little too easy to sacrifice the individual for the whole — witness Clovis’s expulsion as a means of “protecting” the community. In The Cassini Division human life is valued only as long as it defends itself and because it is “ours” — the individual can only be valued above the mass if the individual asserts that value, there can be no wider justification. When Ellen places her own safety and best interest above that of the other participants of the community with which she is aligned she is essentially conforming to a hierarchy of human value that begins with the self. In The Stone Canal, one can put a very exact price on human life, and the law courts frequently do, but there seems little concern with humanity as a whole. The three utopias which MacLeod has constructed can be summarised in terms of the way in which they cope with the absence of morality: The Stone Canal posits a society in which contracts structure relationships and those who impose unfair contracts on the vulnerable must be prepared to deal with the vengeance of the exploited. The Cassini Division suggests you exert your ego, but be prepared to deal with others exerting theirs. Finally, The Sky Road provides a communitarian network which will protect you if you are prepared to protect it, but only if you are willing to accept its rules. The three structures have consequences in terms of the value they place on the human life. The Sky Road, for all its apparent cosiness, diminishes the value of the individual to protect the collectivity. The Cassini Division constructs a hierarchy that begins and ends with the self, while The Stone Canal, the least cosy of the utopias, puts a very literal price on your head that, in its more dystopian ramifications, opens possibilities for the commodification and exploitation of the self.

MacLeod’s utopias are technophile without subscribing to technological determinism (and they retain the belief that technophilia can be discriminating). They embrace a totalising ideology — the construction of liberty — but provide escape routes and they construct societies without morality if not without consequences. This is not Eden. The playing out of consequences within the paradigms offered form the core of the plots and reinforce the utopian message rather than undermining it.

Ken MacLeod clearly succeeds in constructing utopias. The texts are driven by political engagement in addition to imaginative estrangement. He is concerned to provide alternative possibilities and open endedness: these are all precarious utopias in the midst of change (MacLeod 1999a). He offers the plurality which postmodernism demands, while avoiding the pathologisation of plurality which demands we accept anything, and provides a common, totalising idea: liberty, which drives the novels. That it is not peace, happiness or security.



Works Cited:

Ken MacLeod, The Star Fraction (1995); The Stone Canal (1996); The Cassini Division (1998); The Sky Road (1999)

What (Hasn’t Yet) Happened In History Histories of the Future Festschrif t in honour of I.F. Clarke) edited by Alan Sandison and Robert Dingley (Macmillan : 2000).

E–mails, 26 June, 19 July 1999.



Delany, Samuel R. Triton, New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

Dworkin, Andrea, Right Wing Women, London: The Women’s Press, 1983.

Hess, Moses, The Two Sorts of Egoists, 1847

Levitas, Ruth (University of Bristol), paper presented at A Millennium of Utopias at UEA, June 1999. Pluralistic Utopias

McKay, George (University of Central Lancashire), paper presented at A Millennium of Utopias at UEA, June 1999.

Stirner, Max, The Ego and His Own, 1845

Walford, George, A Primitve Private Enterprise Systematic Ideology, http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Classroom/3735 /ideocomm.html

Woodcock, George, Anarchism: a History of Libertatian Ideas and Movements: Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1969.



Web Sites:

Anarchist Library:http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/

Declaration of the League for the Fourth International:http://www.internationalist.org/lfideclaration.html

Gaia Liberation Front : http://www.blue–cher.com/bmfy/private/glfsop.html

Memory Hole: http://alumni.umbc.edu/~akoont1/tmh/

Spunk Library : http://au.spunk.org Blackened Flag library : http://www.blackenedflag.net/ Liberty for the People (texts) :http://www.tigerden.com/~berios/liberty.html

Systematic Ideology: http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Classroom/3735/newreader.html

Voluntary Human Extinction Movement:http://www.vhemt.org


1. US patent laws in the inter-war period we very weak and rather enjoined a budding inventor to secrecy rather than open access (a solution actually offered by Robert H. Heinlein in “Let there Be Light”, 1940).

2. I started with the pictures, but re-reading Leila Berg’s Let’s Look at Kids I was also struck by the degree to which her observation of children and of their mothers (it’s mostly mothers) was a combined thing. The child who was discouraged to talk, whose faculties were being closed down, was experiencing a type of mothering rooted in the mothering that the adult woman had received. In both cases Berg is extrapolating inner thoughts from observation, and is exerting her privilege of class and adulthood, but there is no fundamental difference and the value is in that detailed observation, accompanied, crucially, by an ability to rethink her initial observation. Playing dominoes with one child, she knocked some of hers over. He studied them, and then carefully chose one from his own pile. “Richard didn’t block me. He deliberately chose a domino that would enable me to continue the game.” Berg asserts, “He did not do it because he was altruistic…but because he needed the game to continue, he wanted our relationship…to continue.” (19) There are enough studies of altruism around to suggest that while Berg’s interpretation is mediated, it is consistent with what we understand of altruism.

3. Although an older and very good example is Noel Streatfield. I am very fond of Nicky in Tennis Shoes because she is such a lovely contrarian.

4. Not quite a quote, it is a reference to Maree Mallory’s feeling about seeing Bristol through wavy glass in Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret (1997)

5. Gwyneth Jones once told me of her own childhood that four children close together in age “make a world”.

6. See Sean Stewart’s Galveston (New York; Ace Books, 2000) for a rather more realistic view of medicine dependent society when there are no effective medications left.

7. One difficulty with Wendell’s classification of Nebula winners according to whether women characters are included and how they are portrayed is that Tiptree’s “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” is included in the category Women Characters Nonexistent or Peripheral, in spite of the very powerful female character we are presented with in the denouement, while Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is included in “A World Without Sex Roles,” which obscures the minor female character we meet at the end and who is, if nothing else, a “role model”.

8. Of course, in ignoring the historical specificity of the article, I am playing much the same game as the authors, but I think the point stands.

9. Samuel Delany’s Triton might, in its academic rigor, stand up as one such, but it does not really answer to the problem.

10. Women have been employing this particular tactic, fully aware of its intendant risks, for centuries. A classic account is found in the Old Testament Book of Esther.

11. For example, few members of imperial powers ever learn more than the rudiments of their subjects’ languages. The subjects, on the other hand, are frequently familiar with the oppressor language long after it has gone.

12. Notably Butler, 1991; also Harries; Ramet; Straub

13. See Grosz; Gatens; Bordo.


Rejected Essays and Buried Thoughts

  • ISBN: 9780955468810
  • Author: Farah Mendlesohn
  • Published: 2017-01-13 19:20:24
  • Words: 95885
Rejected Essays and Buried Thoughts Rejected Essays and Buried Thoughts