I first ran across Stephanie Saulter’s work through Cheryl Morgan’s review of Gemsigns, which I went on to race through voraciously and with huge admiration for the humane, sympathetic and interesting approach Saulter takes to questions of language, identity, humanity. So when Binary (my review) came out, with a title that was immediately evocative to me of the queer community, I grabbed it expecting to be blown away; and, although as she says she didn’t actively intend to deal with questions of queer identity, I found the resonances fascinating. That only increased when I met her at Satellite4 and chatted to her about the novel, and she spoke passionately about the resonances of the title for her, a woman of colour from Jamaica who studied at MIT in the 1980s. She agreed to write something on the resonances between the queer community and the ®Evolution novels for me; and that’s what lies below.
Oh, and for you unlucky Americans, Gemsigns is almost available to you – it’s hitting the States some time next month, while Binary is already out here in the UK.
One of the many pleasant surprises I’ve had in the year and a bit since Gemsigns was first published is the warm reception that it, and I, have received from members of what I broadly think of as the queer community – LGBT or QUILTBAG if you prefer (though I chafe at the inelegance of those acronyms). I say ‘surprise’ because I hadn’t mentally tagged any of the themes of the ®Evolution novels as being specifically queer – and as a straight, cisgendered woman with little personal experience of queer issues I wouldn’t have felt qualified to address them if I had.
But neither was I taken aback, because I’d never thought of the issues of discrimination, dehumanisation, exclusion and exoticisation that are threaded throughout Gemsigns and its sequel Binary as being fundamentally different for queer folks than for any other marginalised, minority group. I suspect that the experience of inequality, indifference or incomprehension is much the same, whether it’s rooted in value judgements about race or class; the historical legacy of conquest and colonialism; or biologically determinist views of gender, sex and sexuality. And the resonance that my books have had within the queer community has had the very welcome effect, for me, of introducing me more fully to it; broadening and deepening my own understanding; and making me even more aware of those parallels.
It’s also made me belatedly aware of some interesting quirks and coinages in the language around gender. Take, for example, the word ‘binary.’ I’ve always understood it to refer to any conjunction that is composed of two either-or alternatives, and most specifically as the word that describes base-2 numerical notation: the base code of computers and logic systems. It was with these general and specific meanings in mind that I selected it as the title for my second novel.
As such it describes the book perfectly; but at the time I had no idea that ‘binary’ had also become a code word, a sort of shorthand in discussions around understandings and definitions of gender. It wasn’t until a few months after Gemsigns came out, when I was both basking in that positive attention and learning the lingo of the queer community, that I realised there were going to be a lot of people for whom the title Binary would suggest something very specific.
Sorry about that. I didn’t know. Not that I would necessarily have done anything differently if I had known; but it’s a reminder of how much the degree to which we do or don’t understand each other comes down to the words we use, what we think those words mean, and what emotional resonance we attach to them. There’s an added irony in that one of the themes of Binary IS language – it’s there in the base code that the savant Herran manipulates, the genetic index that a desperately ill Rhys seeks, the twinspeak Rhys shares with his sister Gwen, Herran’s constrained vocabulary and codified syntax, Callan’s mission to translate knowledge from dead tongues into live ones, and the language of memory that illuminates the linked pasts of Aryel Morningstar and Zavcka Klist. It is, as much as anything else, a book about how communication happens, and what is won or lost when we get it right, or wrong.
Because another conceit of Binary is indeed the whole notion of binaries. Every foreground relationship or archetype is mirrored at least once, pursuing a broad theme that does not specifically address gender, but encompasses it within a wider commentary about perception and prejudice. So much of the way we comprehend each other comes down to the oppositional frames of reference we set up: us/them, good/bad, strong/weak, right/wrong, normal/abnormal. Man/woman. Straight/gay. But human beings, and our cultures, societies and relationships, are far more complicated – and interesting – than those dichotomies would suggest. They make the world simple, but they don’t make it true.
I think it’s important to weave these issues into narrative; but I really dislike it when subtext gets in the way of the story. People come to fiction primarily to be entertained, and it’s part of my job as a writer to make sure that any deeper meanings in my work are subtle enough not to detract from that. The result is that I sometimes wonder whether my thematic conclusions are so obscure that no one will notice them but me. So I was really tickled when one of the first reviewers both enjoyed the story, and got the point right away: ‘Things are not binary.’
No, they’re not. There are so many more options. There are so many ways to think and to feel and to love and to live. There are so many ways to be human.
We need a better language for those breadths of possibility. We need a broader, more inclusive set of symbols and archetypes. We need to move beyond the binary programming that defaults between ones, and zeros.
As I said, I didn’t have the queer community specifically in mind when I wrote, or named, Binary. But I didn’t not have them in mind either. And I hope and believe that they, of all people, will understand what it is I’m talking about.
In the far future, human culture has developed five distinctive genders due to the effects of a drug easing sickness from faster-than-light travel. But on the planet Hara, where society is increasingly instability, caught between hard-liner traditions and the realities of life, only male and female genders are legal, and the ”odd-bodied” population are forced to pass as one or the other. Warreven Stiller, a lawyer and an intersexed person, is an advocate for those who have violated Haran taboos. When Hara regains contact with the Concord worlds, Warreven finds a larger role in breaking the long-standing role society has forced on ”him,” but the search for personal identity becomes a battleground of political intrigue and cultural clash.
Winner of a Lambda Literary Award for Gay/Lesbian Science Fiction, Shadow Man remains one of the more important modern, speculative novels ever published in the field of gender- and sexual identity.
It was perhaps inevitable that, between Cheryl Morgan and Alex Dally MacFarlane, with their very different conclusions about the presentation of a queer future in Shadow Man, Scott’s novel was always going to be one of the first books I tackled as part of the Queering the Genre project.
It’s interesting to see Lethe Press’ blurb for the novel describe it as “one of the more important modern speculative novels…in the field of gender… identity”, because in reality, Shadow Man is barely interested in gender identity. The two legal systems in the book are both biologically determinist, with the Haran system flexible only in allowing the “odd-bodied” to choose and change their gender while the Concord only recognises five sexes, and doesn’t seem to have room for fluidity of sexuality let alone changes of gender (the shock espoused by Myhre Tatian on hearing his ex-partner has taken up with a “mem”, one of the three intersexed sexes recognised by the Concord, having thought she was “man-straight”, is very strong). While watching the three systems practiced in the book – the Concord system, the Haran system and the hardline radical interpretation of the Haran system espoused by Tendlathe, in which the “odd-bodied” are nonhuman – is a fascinating vision of how different systems of gender, sex and sexuality interact and collide, and an interesting take on the inevitable crumbling of systems that don’t reflect reality, for a genderqueer person who is male-sexed, Shadow Man doesn’t seem to reflect the messy reality of sex and gender.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an enjoyable book taken as a story, of course. Scott’s novel consistently rejects, in its plotting, easy answers; from start to finish, Shadow Man is a story of the way that economics, politics, personality and power all come together to create, reinforce and bring down systems, the way that myriad different factors impact on the motivations of characters, and the ways in which personal morality and political expediency can collude in real horror. All this plays out in a plot that is actually surprisingly slow and quiet, focused on the offworlder Mhyre Tatian, the representative of the pharmaceutical company NAPD on Hara, and Warreven Stiller, a lawyer whose practice focuses on questions of “trade” (effectively sex work) who is sidelined away from this into representing 3is clan as their negotiator with the offworld pharmaceutical companies thanks to the machinations of the Most Important Man, Temelathe Stade.
Whilst sounding like an incredibly difficult universe to understand and a hard novel to get into at first glance, in fact Scott’s novel is incredibly accessible; very readable, fast-paced language, with definitions between each viewpoint-section of both social terms and terms around the systems of gender and sexuality used by the Concord and Hara, combine with the plot to draw the reader on and never let up; Shadow Man is one of the most simply enjoyable books I’ve read in some time in that regard, because it really plugs into that part of the reader which simply wants to know what happens next. The delayed climax, and the intricacies of the plot, all fall into place over the course of the novel which ends, like China Mièville’s Iron Council, just before the inevitable revolution explodes and takes hold; Scott’s refusal to answer the questions the clash of cultures asks is excellently executed.
The characters of Shadow Man are a more mixed point, however. Whilst Warreven and Myhre Tatian are both fascinatingly painted, rounded characters, they’re probably the only two who really are; Temelathe is very simplistically painted as simply interested in power, his son Tendlathe is almost the archetypical homophobe sublimating his desires into anger and bigotry, and the rest of the cast are equally simply portrayed. Motivations appear to be single-stranded, and largely responses to the social pressures of two cultures coming into conflict, rather than the more interesting, varied rainbow of human actions that the world and our experience presents. It’s also surprising to note that, in a book about sex, gender and sexuality, we barely see women; all of our main cast but for Warreven are male-identified men, and even Warreven spends the majority of the book as a male-identified “herm”. This is a strange lack, and a noticable one.
In the end, Shadow Man deserves praise for a fascinating portrayal of cultural change and shift, and for some excellent writing around its central duo; but Scott’s interrogation of gender and sex really falls down on inspection, and her male-dominated cast tends towards the flat. This is an important and enjoyable book, but not necessarily an successful one, interesting more for its failures than its successes.
Science fiction and fantasy – “genre” – fiction has, over the last few years, increasingly been the subject of a number of conversations about the dominance of the kyriarchy not in telling stories so much as deciding what stories are worthy; women have always written, to paraphrase Kameron Hurley, but their writing, like the writing of queer people and people of colour, has been erased. The same has happened to characters who break out from the unmarked default; novels centring on women, on people of colour, on queer characters, on people who sit on multiple arcs in oppression, have been erased from the canon, whether conciously or not.
Joanna Russ is, of course, both an exception to this rule (The Female Man is one of the few non-straight, white, cis male centred novels published as a Gollancz Masterwork) and the most cited descriptor of it (How To Suppress Women’s Writing is a classic of feminist critique of literary conservatism, and incredibly readable to boot). But what of the queer, the female, the non-white narratives that have been erased? As a sexually queer and genderqueer genre reader, I rarely see myself reflected in the novels I read; and so, I am embarking on a project to follow in the footsteps of others, and try to read (and possibly unearth or resurrect) some of these erased works.
This isn’t a novel project, of course. Tor.com has published, and continues to publish, similar quests by both Alex Dally MacFarlane and Brit Mandelo, both more widely read and more incisive than myself, and I intend to use those resources as recommendations for my own reading; similarly, Liz Bourke’s BSFA-nominated column Sleeps With Monsters has also touched on the topic, as have any number of other projects elsewhere both online and off. I am not breaking new ground with this project, and the only reason it is even slightly radical is because, as a genre, we continue to embrace the unmarked default; from behemothic publishing companies down to the level of individual readers, we aren’t working hard enough to overturn it, to queer the genre, and this will be my own small contribution to that effort.
So, for a little while I’ll only be reading “queer” genre fiction – that is, featuring either genderqueer and/or non-heterosexual characters; and I’ll be reviewing and discussing those works. I also hope to get some guests in to write about the topic, and as I go I intend to write a few more discursive pieces of my own on the topic. We kick off tomorrow with a review of Shadow Man by Melissa Scott, followed on Wednesday by Stephanie Saulter talking about ‘Gender, Language and Understanding’, and we’ll see where it goes from there – preferably with your help and recommendations! For now, keep queering the genre; D out!
Oh, and if anyone is willing to do me a logo design for this series – a basic rocket in the pride colours, say – I’d be incredibly grateful! Thanks to Alyssa Hanson for a fantastic logo, as seen at the top of this post!
In Nina Allan’s re-imagining of the Arachne myth, Layla, a weaver of extraordinary talent, leaves home to make her own way in life.
She heads to Atoll City in a modern alternate Greece, attracting the interest of an old lady along the way. The old lady informs Layla that she knew her mother, and of the gift the woman once possessed.
A gift that brought tragedy on Layla’s family.
A gift that Layla too possesses.
As a Classicist with a particular fascination with reception studies, all this novella needed to do to get my interest was have the phrase “re-imagining of the Arachne myth” on the back; I hadn’t read the blurb above until I searched for a proper blurb to go with this review, since Spin-the-publication only has critical praise on the back. Of course, that might be because no blurb could really do this little piece of beauty justice…
The centre of Spin is its aesthetic. I’m not used to visualising fiction intensely – falling into its world, yes, but falling into its colours less so; but Nina Allan slowly weaves her colourful, fully-throated beautiful and incredibly visual world around the reader slowly and clearly, with an undeniable and absolute power. The use and importance of colour is emphasised throughout but also subtly layered into the story; colour sets tone, atmosphere, scene, even character, and the vividness of Allan’s writing really makes that work. From the “lacquered craquelle green” of thorns to “dark skin lustrous as teak” this is an intensely visual piece of writing.
It also packs in an awful lot of character. Spin is eighty-odd pages, but into that slight length is packed more character and humanity than many novels; Allan handles, with a deft touch, Layla’s maturity and her growing understanding of herself and her role in the world; the development of her character from child to adult; and the sympathetic approach to her very definite, set materialistic worldview. That, of course, doesn’t mean Allan endorses that view, and indeed she undermines it, both through other characters – Alcander Crawe and Thanick Acampos especially – but also through the narrative itself; and in challenging Layla, Allan develops the rest of her characters into fully rounded beings, flaws and all, in the most interesting way.
Spin also holds the distinction of being set in an alternate-present(?) Greece; Carthage appears to have existed within a century of iPads, Rome to have fallen not within living memory but certainly not a millenium and a half ago, sibylls have existed and been outlawed in living memory, and more. The handling of this is really subtle, and grows as the novella continues; casual references build up into a more and more complete image of the Mediterranean world Allan has invented for Spin, and it’s a fascinating one, with the gods still the major religion and Christianity still only at cult status. As with Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas, there’s clearly a lot of thought about the alternate history of the world that’s not made it into the text, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Where Allan falls down is with her plot. Spin is sold as an Arachne-myth, but doesn’t quite do that; nor does it actually deliver a real plot, per se. Instead, we have a character study at a series of snapshots; events don’t quite join up, the chronology is unclear, certainly the timings of many of the events don’t seem to map onto each other. Treating this as a myth, of course, helps in many of these regards, as we don’t expect it of myth, but Spin is a little too grounded, a little too engaged with modern narratologies, to be a myth; so it hits some serious bumps for a reader, especially when read in a concentrated way.
In sum, Spin isn’t flawless – the plot is thin and rocky at best – but it is a beautiful piece of writing, both evocative and intensely coloured. I recommend it as a brilliant piece of character-writing.
Zavcka Klist has reinvented herself: no longer the ruthless gemtech enforcer determined to keep the gems they created enslaved, she’s now all about transparency and sharing the fruits of Bel’Natur’s research to help gems and norms alike.
Neither Aryel Morningstar nor Dr Eli Walker are convinced that Klist or Bel’Natur can have changed so dramatically, but the gems have problems that only a gemtech can solve. In exchange for their help, digital savant Herran agrees to work on Klist’s latest project: reviving the science that drove mankind to the brink of extinction.
Then confiscated genestock disappears from a secure government facility, and the more DI Varsi investigates, the closer she comes to the dark heart of Bel’Natur and what Zavcka Klist is really after – not to mention the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s own past…
When Gemsigns, the first ®Evolution novel, first came to my attention, it was via Cheryl Morgan’s excellent review; and, when I turned to Binary just after it came out, I was expecting something very similar to what I had gotten in that book. I wasn’t entirely wrong… but it’s not the whole story, either!
Gemsigns left a lot of plotlines hanging for its sequel, a lot of unresolved events and mysteries at its close not tied up. Binary may find one of its greatest strengths in that openness; while tying up all the plot threads it isn’t a closed ending – evil hasn’t been exposed and defeated to leave good ruling the world in either a utopia or a status quo ante bellum, but rather evil has been exposed and now good needs to work out… what next? It’s that interesting openness that really allows the closure provided by Saulter in this concluding novel to really work; Binary, in a scant four hundred pages, goes both forward from and backward “against” Gemsigns, ably colouring in the backstory of various characters, primarily the mysterious Aryel Morningstar and Zackva Klist. The use of italics for “flashback” sections is a little jarring, but the sections themselves work and are fantastically integrated into the novel.
The big problem with the plot is how much the novel is trying to do. In four hundred pages, Saulter necessarily has to sacrifice some plots in order to make Binary a manageable novel; Gwen, especially, gets short shrift and it’s obvious that there’s a lot going on here that we don’t see, whilst seeing enough to make the reader really want to know the rest (perhaps a short story here, Stephanie?). That both serves to remind the reader that there are things happening offscreen, but also makes the novel feel somehow incomplete in its choice to ignore some of these storylines.
Binary doesn’t add in any new characters as compared to Gemsigns, so if you’ve read that (which isn’t quite necessary) you’ll already have met all the characters Saulter brings to the table; but here, the feel of those characters is better fleshed out, with Herran especially getting more room for focus and more room to breathe. Similarly, as Saulter develops the relationship between Rhys and Carran, we see an interesting, sympathetic portrayal of a gay relationship without either character becoming all about their homosexuality (although Carran threatens to fall into that pit a lot, and only manages to balance on its edge). If there’s a criticism to be had of character, it’s that an awful lot of them are essentially static; Herran and Klist are the only two who really develop as individuals or members of a group, the rest remaining at the end of the book basically the same as they were at the start.
I’m also going to say a few words about the title, here. Whilst Gemsigns was pretty much purely descriptive, and while Saulter has told me in conversation that Binary was chosen only to refer to computer code (which forms the centre of the main plot), she’s been really pleased with the different interpretations of it; given the way the gems and society interact, the ideas of postbinary gender and sexuality sprang immediately to mind, and for others, different things have become most prominent in connection with it. Not, perhaps, as evocative as The Steles of the Sky, Binary opens itself up as a title and a novel to endless parallels and implications.
All in all, this is an interesting corporate/political science fiction thriller; Binary lets Saulter showcase both fascinating ideas and good writing, but it does skimp on some characters in a way this reader at least found disappointing. A thought-provoking book worth your time.
By now, we’ve all had a chance to see what the ballot for this year’s Hugo Awards looks like; if not, you can find them here. I was in the room as they were announced by the committee, so please bear that personal presence in mind as you read this post; also note that a discussion about the Hugo Awards and what they say about fandom with Stephanie Saulter, author of Gemsigns and a woman of colour, will feed into discussion in this post.
This looks like a ballot of two halves. Some sections strongly reflect one part of fandom, while others are more mixed. Before we go any further I’d like, with four individual exceptions, to congratulate every nominee on that ballot; especially Ann Leckie, who I am a big partisan of and was more than honoured to be the avatar of at the BSFAs on Sunday when she won best novel, and Liz Bourke, who is both a friend and someone whose writing I hugely admire, among others. Those exceptions are Brad Torgersen, Toni Weisskopf, Larry Correia and – most especially – the truly loathsome specimen Vox Day, aka Theodore Beale.
Before we talk about the bad, let’s talk about the good. Of our five Fan Writer nominees, four are women, none have won before, and (at least) four are very outspoken on social justice issues including anti-racism, feminism, and gender and sexuality issues. I won’t claim I always agree with them or their politics, but I wouldn’t expect to; I respect them, the integrity of their positions and writing, and perhaps more significantly, I respect their willingness to stand up to the people on the other side of these issues, the truly toxic souls who don’t believe (for instance) that women can be science fiction writers, or who believe that left-wing politics are evil.
This combination of well-written work, integrity and good politics are also clear in some of our semiprozine and fanzine nominations; The Book Smugglers are a wonderful pair of writers and their blog, whilst sometimes truly infuriating (sorry, Thea and Ana!) and focussing largely on parts of the genre I’m not very engaged with, is still absolutely fantastic work and they’ve really been willing to stick their necks out on the issues over the past year; similarly Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Beneath Ceaseless Skies all promote progressive fiction, progressive writers, and articles and pieces on progressive issues. They’re well put together and interesting sites I recommend to you all.
Best Related Work continues the theme of progressive, well-done projects being rewarded; Kameron Hurley’s We Have Always Fought essay is a slight entry on this section of the ballot, but it is undeniably a brilliantly researched and well-written historical argument about the genre and the marginalisation of female protagonists in it, and Queers Dig Time Lords, from the title onwards, highlights the role and existence of the similarly-marginalised queer community in its various permutations, especially in this strangely popular part of the fandom.
The final part of this ballot that I really want to celebrate is the Campbell awards; these are inherently awards for newcomers, but this year they are also an award for often-marginalised parts of our fandom. The ballot only has one white man, one white woman, two men of colour, and a woman of colour; all of these writers look at diversity and feature diverse cast, in fact often focusing on characters of colour, and look at larger progressive issues. This all demonstrates that the upwards trajectory of the genre is one that the next generation is going to consolidate.
There’s also the mediocre, unobjectionable work on the ballot. While I like some of Stross’ work, I’ve not managed to get through Neptune’s Brood (though it’ll be my next book now), and Mira Grant’s Parasite is an unobjectionable, fun read, very similar to the Newsflesh books; readable, but again, not the best of the year by any means. Across the rest of the novels on the ballot, only Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice strikes me as a really strong work pushing the genre forward and doing interesting, new things with space opera; especially as a debut novel, this is fantastic work. For the most part I’ve not read what’s on the rest of the fiction ballots, but it is here where the objectionable work is concentrated.
Splashed onto a fan ballot that is an absolutely beautiful example of some of the best and brightest the genre has, some of the most forward-thinking authors and commentators, are some truly toxic presences. First and foremost amongst these is the appalling Vox Day, real name Theodore Beale. VD has been published by, among others, WorldNetDaily, a fringe rightwing site, and has espoused the views that implies; he is an outspoken white supremacist, male supremacist, homophobe, transphobe and all-round bigot. That vile streak of hatred has been so violently, loudly and bluntly espoused by VD that the Science Fiction Writers of America expelled him, and his status as a tax exile from the United States is an interesting twist on his outspoken patriotism. He is well outside the genre mainstream, but he and the slate he promoted for the Hugos – Larry Correia, Brad Torgersen, Toni Weisskopf – received enough nominations to ensure that they made the ballot, self-admittedly in order to troll the rest of the fandom.
It’s become common on Twitter to decry those who accuse VD’s slate of ballot-stuffing. I’m just going to note how truly toxic these individuals are from the perspective of the rest of fandom, and that there was a 43% increase in nominations this year as compared to last year; while LonCon3 is one of the largest WorldCons ever, I don’t think that alone can account for this jump, especially with VD and his crowd out there actively campaigning for people to nominate a slate to troll the genre. The toxic underbelly of genre, that has cruelly attacked so much of fandom (and especially its already marginalised and vulnerable members), has managed to claim one of the highest profile parts of the genre for itself, and that cannot be overlooked.
On the other hand, Stephanie Saulter reminded me that she’d seen racism increasingly marginalised in her lifetime, and that sight had always been accompanied by the same thing fandom is seeing in VD (and among other writers). In her opinion, what we’re seeing here is the spasming rage of a dying breed of bigots. That the scale of those bigots has just been revealed only means we now know how many there are, though that’s an exact figure that will have to wait until after the award is announced and nomination figures are released.
I continue to think Saulter is, on this topic, overly optimistic, and that Scalzi’s advice that these people’s work should be treated on their merits are both wrong. The latter comes from a place of immense privilege; whilst VD has a longstanding feud with Scalzi, he remains a straight white middle class American male with a huge fanbase; that insulates him hugely from the damage and indeed fear that VD’s base can and has incited in others. The former has a lot more credibility with me; Saulter’s life experience and the changes she’s seen in her lifetime give her a historical insight into the present situation that honestly ought not to be overlooked. However, I think she’s wrong.
When 10% of SFWA want Theodore Beale as their president, when enough people are willing to pay the money to put Beale and his little cabal of racists onto the Hugo Award ballots, that’s not the dying gasps of racists. That’s the tip of the iceberg; fellow-travellers, those who don’t <em>quite</em> endorse how extreme he is but think he’s onto something, the UKIP members to VD’s BNP (to use a British political analogy) are all invisible to this harsh metric. I think (and I don’t know if Stephanie Saulter agrees) that this is something we need to actively, completely root out; our fandom cannot survive if it continues to nurture VD and his ilk, if it continues to provide him with a platform. The nice liberal-fandom bubble social media allows many of us to live in is not representative, or at a minimum not as representative as we would wish.
Let’s come clean, confront that fact… and throw these arseholes out.
NB: This isn’t the Hugo Awards Committee’s fault. Once VD &co got their nominations, there was nothing in the Hugo rules to allow them to exclude these bigots from the awards. That’s our fault as fandom. It’s our job, not the Committee’s, to no-platform and exclude those people, both by changing the rules (risky) and by getting more heavily involved rather than walking away. Things don’t get fixed when we leave them, they’re only allowed to decay more.
There’s little point to reading this without first reading my review of Lagoon, and indeed, preferably the novel as well. When you’ve done that, come back and we’ll talk.
Ok, good. In case you ignored my advice, let’s get you up to speed. Lagoon is a novel by Nnedi Okorafor, set in the Nigerian city of Lagos, a chaotic, lively, growing, thriving, living city. The entire novel takes place in Lagos or its surrounds, with one exception – and even that is tied immediately and directly into Lagos. It’s also a first contact novel; the aliens come not to New York, not to London, not to DC or LA or Paris or any of the other standards, but to Lagos. That shift from the Western, colonialist world to the developing but still poor economy of Nigeria is a fascinating one, especially in the ways that the aliens reflect the pushback against the standard approach to charity and foreign aid; external forces creating the cirumstances for internal change.
There’s one thing which would have changed that singular focus on Nigeria; the deleted scene Okorafor chose to include at the end of Lagoon, showing African-American college kids reacting to the various reportage and social media footage of the events of the novel. Suddenly, reading that, the whole novel changes; a visible spaceship appears off the coast of Nigeria, and the (governmental/official/international) reaction appears to barely extend beyond the people of Lagos? That focus is, when highlighted, impossible and unbelievable; but, as in Western-set first contact novels, by ignoring the rest of the world, we forget that it even exists. It allows Lagos to become the world, whilst remaining Lagos; but as soon as you give us a secondary location, we have to wonder what’s happening there – and everywhere else. It breaks the hyperfocused world created by the author, and creates problems for the reader.
I commented on Twitter that the scene would have damaged the sense of the novel as “African”, if it had been included, and Nnedi Okorafor replied:
@Daniel_Libris ask yourself what the definition of "African" is, as well. And who should b included in that conversation.—
Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) April 17, 2014
So, what did I get wrong? Simply put, this is no more an African novel than a first contact novel set in New York is a ‘Western’ novel; the paradigm is narrower than that. Lagos, for the reader, comes to stand in for both the world and Africa. Okorafor narrows everything down for the reader by focusing in closer without ever looking at a broader world; Lagos is the only place in the world, it’s the place the aliens have chosen, and Okorafor deploys both that fact and the character of Lagos to perfection. My mistake was to call the novel an African novel; instead, it is Nigerian, the way NYC-set first-contact novels are American novels. Putting in characters from outside the closed world of Lagos makes it a global novel, the same way putting a character in Lagos into a novel set in NYC would make the novel global and raise questions about the America-only response.
So who is African? As a white British blogger, I don’t have a voice in that conversation – or rather, I shouldn’t have, and won’t try to engage in it. But who should appear in Lagoon? That question I will answer; and the answer is, characters in Nigeria. And that’s why I’m glad that deleted scene was indeed deleted.