Thursday, 9 May 2013

Karen Joy Fowler - Sarah Canary (1991)

"It might even be true. It was not for him to know. A man says something. Sometimes it turns out to be the truth, but this has nothing to do with the man who says it. What we say occupies a very thin surface, like the skin over a body of water. Beneath this, through the water itself, is what we see, sometimes clearly if the water is calm, sometimes vaguely if the water is troubled, and we imagine this vision to be the truth, clear or vague. But beneath this is yet another level. This is the level of what is and this level has nothing to do with what we say or what we see."

'Sarah Canary' is one of SF's most powerful explorations of the Other. Fittingly for a book about First Contact, it deals with alienation. But Sarah Canary doesn't act as a filter to give us a fresh perspective on humanity as much as a focal point that draws in the novel's motley crew of disenfranchised. Sarah Canary isn't really the protagonist; she doesn't actually do much, we never find out anything about her motivations or thoughts, and Fowler deliberately leaves her true nature ambiguous. She's a walking Outside Context Problem, and how the various characters perceive and react to her reveals the prejudices, concerns and fears of the 1870s America she mysteriously appears in. 
   The masterstroke of 'Sarah Canary' is not just in how it explores the lot of the disenfranchised, but also how it highlights the inhumanity of the society that allows this. The book takes us on a tour through Chinese labour camps, mental asylums, Indian shanty towns and carnival shows, emphasising that, unless you were a particular subset of straight white male, this was a time and place that granted you precious little rights. We meet Chin Ah Kin, who first discovers Sarah Canary, a Chinese immigrant who was more or less kidnapped and brought to the States to work on the railways. They are joined by B.J., an escapee from the asylum, which is run on a strict budget with little care for the patients' well-being and no meaningful way of treating them, and Adelaide Dixon, a suffragette who is routinely persecuted for daring to suggest that women should enjoy sex. All three of them perceive Sarah Canary differently, but all three of them try to help and protect her. Along the way they encounter a series of unpleasant white men who plan to exploit her one way or another.
   All of this makes the book sound much more didactic than it actually is. 'Sarah Canary' is far more well rounded and complicated than that. Fowler deftly reveals the extent to which prejudice can divide people. Initially, Chin, B.J. and Miss Dixon view each other with the same hostility and suspicion that society faces the with, but through their shared experiences with Sarah Canary they gain both a mutual respect for one another as people and a profound understanding of each other's circumstances. Additionally  none of the unpleasant white men are straw men. Fowler makes them well developed enough as characters that we are able to see where they are coming from, even if we don't sympathise. Frequently they too are in their own ways victims of a cruel and exclusionary society - for example Harold, perhaps the closest the book has to a villain, is revealed to have been driven to the brink of sanity following his experiences in a prisoner of war camp following the end of the Civil War. 
   One of the main themes of the book is perception - how our perception shapes the way we experience the world, and whether or not this prevents us from ever really seeing the truth. The quote above reminds me of Philip K. Dick's famous maxim, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away". Here we have almost the opposite problem - when you can't separate out how your own beliefs colour something, how can you ever know what reality truly is? This links back to the theme of prejudice, and how the characters are in reality very different from how they are perceived to be. Chin has to deal with the possibility that he may be lynched wherever he goes, yet he is perceived as being dangerous. Miss Dixon is called a slut and a whore because of her campaigns for women's rights, yet she has barely had any experiences with men and is at heart a romantic. Everyone thinks B.J. is crazy, yet in the chapter where we get to experience his viewpoint we find out he is perfectly lucid, if oblique. This all makes it thoroughly appropriate that Sarah Canary herself is only perceived by others, so the truth as to who or what she actually is is never revealed.
   Sarah Canary's true nature is only hinted at. Although it's possible to read the book as straight historical fantasy with no SF elements whatsoever, the juxtaposition of the alien and alienation is too resonant to ignore. Throughout the book she is compared or described in supernatural terms. She is also compared to a butterfly, specifically with regards to her mysterious transformation at the end, and from Chin's first encounter with her he associates her with the image of a one-winged bird. The combined vision we get from all these images perhaps gives us an idea of what her true form might be. 


Thursday, 2 May 2013

Brian Aldiss - Non-Stop (1958)

"Adversity makes thinkers of us all. Only now, when the long journey means no more than a retreat into darkness, do I begin to question the sanity behind the whole conception of inter-stellar travel. How many hapless men and women must have questioned it on the way out to Procyon, imprisoned in this eternal walls! For the sake of that grandiose idea, their lives guttered uselessly, as many more must do before our descendants step on Earth again. Earth! I pray that there men's hearts have changed, grown less like the hard metals they have loved and served for so long. Nothing but the full flowering of a technological age, such as the Twenty-first Century knew, could have launched this miraculous ship; yet the miracle is sterile, cruel. Only a technological age could condemn unborn generations to exist in it, as if man were mere protoplasm, without emotion or aspiration.
   "At the beginning of the technological age - a fitting token to my mind - stands the memory of Auschwitz-Berkenau; what can we do but hope that this more protracted agony stands at its end: its end for ever, on Earth, and no the new world of Procyon V."

The spaceship is central to the iconography of SF. Spaceships are fast and powerful, a symbol of freedom and exploration, of humanity's ingenuity, the means by which they will take their rightful place among the stars. Who can deny the immediate sense of wonder generated by those images, or that Pavlovian response generated by the name or shape of the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon? To many, spaceships are what makes a story SF. Therefore, it takes an author of some audacity to so brutally deconstruct the idea of the spaceship in their first full length SF novel as Brian Aldiss does in 'Non-Stop'.
   In its short history, the reality of space travel has always been very different from how it is portrayed in fiction. As much as SF writers love to go on about what a harsh, unforgiving medium space is, space travel is overwhelmingly portrayed as fun. As much as Picard and co. run into danger every week, they get to do so in luxury in their all-mod-cons giant floating conference hotel. While this is instantly appealing, and undoubtedly if humanity continues with this space travel malarkey I'm sure things will eventually improve, the reality of space travel is simply much less glamourous and much more dangerous. The other key issue SF frequently takes for granted is, of course, the massive distances in space and the huge amount of time it takes to traverse them, if we're playing by the rules of Einsteinian physics. Poul Anderson's 'Tau Zero' explores one realistic method of travelling the vast distances of space (albeit not very dramatically satisfyingly, in my humble opinion), but in 'Non-Stop' Aldiss explores another practical solution to this problem - the generation ship. A generation ship solves the problem that journeys between the stars would take several human lifespans by allowing it to do just that - the descendants of the original crew will eventually arrive at the ship's destination.
   The characters in 'Non-Stop' don't realise they are on a spaceship. It's one of several theories circulating to explain the world they are living in, but for Roy Complain, average hunter for the Greene tribe, he is too busy struggling to survive day to day, hunting for the tribe and fighting off threats, from the mysterious Giants and Outsiders to frighteningly intelligent rats. However that all changes when the power-hungry priest Marapper finds a plan of the ship, and leads Complain and a bunch of misfits in a desperate attempt to find the control room and seize control of the ship for themselves.
    'Non-Stop' is so effective in part because of how wisely Aldiss handles the reveals. It doesn't take us long to figure out we're on a spaceship; indeed, writing this Aldiss must have known this would have been given away fairly immediately by the blurb and the cover art anyway. However it quickly becomes apparent something more complex is going on; this is revealed to our point-of-view characters piece by piece, as nearly everyone they encounter has only parts of the information, so we only get the full story at the end. This results in a darkly humourous game of 'Fortunately, Unfortunately', as each time our characters learn more about their situation, this information is almost immediately subverted. Aldiss' plotting is so tight, and there is sufficient foreshadowing, that each reveal is a surprise yet it never feels like a cheat.
   Aldiss also displays an almost Ballardian zest at displaying the collapse of society under pressure. The ship suffered a disaster, and the images of people living in its decaying quarters amongst machines they no longer understand the function of whilst plants from hydroponics have overrun the decks is like something out of 'High Rise' or 'The Drowned World'. This is also echoed in the verve with which he examines the downfall of various petty authority figures as their conceptions of reality are shattered and the situation spirals even further out of control.
   I felt I had to include the quote above in full, from the original captain's diary found by the characters at a crucial moment, to illustrate how far Aldiss goes in his trashing of the generation ship. To Aldiss, the major problem with this form of transport is not that so much can go wrong; although everything does and with aplomb. It's that it is essentially a form of institutionalised cruelty to resign the fate of entire unborn generations to something they didn't choose, just so they can be a stepping stone for a generation to come. At the end of the book, Complain finds out that the ship had reached Earth generations ago, but the Earth governments had decided that the ship dwellers were a potential bio-hazard and so had quarantined them in orbit indefinitely, whilst keeping them all in the dark. When one of the Earth men explains that they were doing it for the ship dweller's own good, Complain rightly calls him out on being patronising and self-serving.
   'Non-Stop' is, like much SF, a coming of age story at heart. Roy Complain evolves from living purely in the moment to gradually gaining more and more agency over his own situation. The story works beautifully as a metaphor for growing up. Complain starts of the story trusting authority figures such as Marapper, but by the end of the book he has seen so many people crumble because their clear perceptions of the world around them have been proved wrong. He learns that his and everyone else's assumptions of the world around them is just that - their own assumptions, worthy of questioning to uncover the truth.