Nina Allan, The Race (Titan Books: 2014)

A little over a year ago I read The Race by Nina Allan, science fiction writer and critic. I found the book interesting, reviewed it on Goodreads, and wrote a little about it in my notebook. Then, apparently, I forgot about it so much that I was looking at it in the shelf trying to remember when, exactly, I’d read it. Looking back at my notes, this is a real shame – the novel (story suite?) is thoroughly interesting.

Now that Pod Bay One is defunct (RIP) I’m looking at my notebooks and thinking that I really should get back into writing this blog again. So I’m going to write up my notes on The Race for you, whomever is reading this, with some additional notes that I discovered about the paperback version of the book after I wrote my review/these notes.

The Race

I was not expecting The Race to be anything other than a normal, ‘mundane’ science fiction novel. I use ‘mundane’ in the sense of the literary movement – Earth-bound, ‘hard’ science fiction, no extraterrestrials or interstellar flight. Throughout the whole of Jenna’s story I was expecting this narrative thread to continue, with Marce’s part, number 4, being about the missing Lumey. Well, I was half right. It took a bit of Christy’s narrative for me to realise that this was not the same world, not the past, but another reality in which Jenna and Lumey’s stories were written by Christy Peller. It took even longer for me to realise that ‘Brock Island; by Christy Peller was not an unannounced novella by another author, but part of this novel. But really, it’s that inclusion that really complicates what’s going on in The Race.

The Race is not exactly a story-suite. While the stories are thematically linked, they also tell a consistent, on-going narrative that means they don’t fully work disconnected. While it might be possible to say that Jenna and Marce are fictional characters created by Christy, a little more reflection reminds us that Christy, too, is fictional – the creation of Nina Allan. Well, we might think, so what? The conceit is still that Christy created Sapphire, Jenna, and Lumey/Marce. But the inclusion of “Brock Island” complicates that. In the story attributed to Christy, we read a thrid-person narrative of Marce’s middle age. The chapters/sections “Jenna” and “Marce” are both first person. Christy writes them, we might suppose, but they ‘exist’, really, as much as she does. It complicates the readers relationship to their fictional narratives, realistic and science fictional. What is real? we might ask. What is realism and why/how is it different to the unreal narratives of science fiction?

An additional question follows: Why is Alex’s narrative told in the third person? Because he’s male? Or, like “Brock Island”, because this story is an invention of Christy’s, a kind of consoling narrative she tells herself because she cannot face investigating Linda’s disappearance herself?

Beyond this statement about the significance of science fiction as a literary genre, there’s also a narrative function behind these shifting narratives. Christy, like the character Laura Christy in her “Brock Island”, has an experience where she ‘sees’ another world, through a mirror, which is like-but-unlike her own. Another life, somewhere different. We are given the impression that Jenna and Marce’s lives, presented to us both as Christy’s fictional narratives and through their own thoughts (also fictional narratives of Nina Allan), are not so much Christy’s creations as her hearing messages from this other world.

Afterward

After I’d written the version of this blog that I wrote last Decemeber in my notebook, I started looking into other people’s readings of this novel. In doing so, I discovered that Allan had written “Brock Island” separately to be added to the Titan edition of The Race and that it was not supposed to be understood as a ‘new ending’ to the novel. Well, oops.

I don’t really think that this undermines my reading of the novel – I didn’t have the information at the time, and who are authors to control how I, the reader, understand a text just because they wrote it?! In all seriousness, in the event that I re-read this novel (which I’m keen to do, but I’m more inclined to get my hands on Allan’s other novels first) this information probably will affect my understanding of the novel and how these worlds interact. But maybe it won’t. After all, for a year this reading was just for me, and even on this blog it’s unlikely to be read by more than 2-3 people.

I am glad to have had this reading, though, because in investigating Emily St John Mandel’s follow-up to Station Eleven (Knopf: 2014), The Glass Hotel (Picador: 2020) I discovered that advanced readers were confused about the novel’s relationship to Station Eleven. One reader speculated that the plague of Station Eleven was in the imagination of one of the characters who appears in both novels. But The Race, and the conversation in Station Eleven about parallel universes, suggest otherwise: these are different, parallel, fictional narratives that invite us to question how we receive fictional stories.

Where can I get a haircut on Alpha Centauri?

I’ve recently been watching the Netflix reboot of Lost in Space, based in part on Josho’s recommendation. In this iteration of the show, the Robinson family are part of a mission from Earth to colonize a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, allowing certain members of the human race to escape the worsening effects of climate change on Earth and see blue skies again in another part of the galaxy.

In order to become part of this mission, applicants had to pass a series of tests designed to ensure that they were both physically capable, emotionally resilient, and generally useful enough to contribute to the colony. Not everyone became part of the mission by following the rules; and there seems to be some value given to artistry, as Penny Robinson’s place on the trip seems to be based on her desire to one day write a novel (unless the decision-makers recognized the invaluable contribution her snark makes to the mission and the show). Nevertheless, the aim was for the colony to represent the best of the best of the best.

The people of the planet Golgafrincham in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had almost the opposite idea for their space colonization mission – or rather, their mission to rid themselves of a third of their population whom they believed to be useless. Having divided their people into the Thinkers – scientists, artists, and other high achievers – the Doers – people who made things – and everyone else – middle men, such as lawyers, hairdressers, and telephone sanitizers – the Golgafrinchans convinced the middlemen that their world was doomed, and sent them all off in an Arc Ship to crash-land onto a distant planet in the unfashionable western spiral arm of the galaxy.

The remaining Golgafrinchams stayed behind, their tales of doom a fiction concocted by the descendants of the Great Circling Poets of Arium. They lived rich, full, and happy lives until their actual doom came from a disease contracted from a dirty telephone – if this is one of the occasions on which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is accurate.

The story of Golgafrincham reminds us that sometimes we don’t know who is going to be important, and we don’t really know that “the best of the best” will be all that good. In “Eulogy”, episode 6 of Lost in Space season one, Don West points out to Judy Robinson that while his cash-grabbing antics might come across as mercenary, his skill as a mechanic isn’t enough to get him a place in the colony. When the Resolute reaches the colony, all he will get is a ticket back to the dying Earth. And yet, his assistance in the survival of the stranded colonists is paramount, largely down to his practical experience of mechanics.

While the recent history of Earth suggests that telephone sanitizers might not have been as vital as they ended up being on Golgafrincham, over the longer term I would argue that hairdressers have played a substantial role. Throughout history, hair has been a vital way in which people have shaped their culture and their identity, from the “warrior’s beauty” of Bronze Age burials containing tweezers, razors, and mirrors alongside weapons to more recent trends in era defining hairstyles.

But how many hairdressers will have made it through the rigorous tests and training required to become part of the colonization mission in Lost in Space? If the value of a mechanic like Don West isn’t appreciated, would the artistry of hairdressing? Put simply: where could I get a haircut on Alpha Centauri?

A commentary on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 5: Part 4 – The Maquis

Toward the end of season 5, the most interesting, if not the best, episode is “Blaze of Glory” (5X23). This episode saw the final return of Michael Eddington, former DS9 security officer who defected from the Federation to the Maquis – the freedom fighters/terrorists who fought against the Cardassians when their homes were on the Cardassian side of the boarder post-treaty with the Federation.

The Maquis in the Alpha Quadrant were largely annihilated off-screen in the episode “By Inferno’s Light” (5X15), when the Cardassians officially became part of the Dominion. In “Blaze of Glory” we see them struggling on, caring not for the fragile peace in the Alpha Quadrant by launching a missile attack on Cardassia Prime – or so it appears. The plan turns out to be a ruse to reunite Eddington with his wife and compatriots who have survived the Dominion attack. Eddington, ultimately, is killed fighting the Jem’Hadar while allowing his people to escape. And with that, the Maquis exit DS9.

In some ways this conclusion is deeply disappointing, as the Maquis provided the most interesting moral grey area in DS9. For all the interesting possibilities of the Dominion, they essentially serve just as an enemy big enough to threaten the Federation – there’s no nuanced or deep moral or philosophical difference at play. The Maquis represent the real losers in the peaceful resolutions in which the Federation trades, and their appeal to Ro Lauren in the Next Generation episode “Preemptive Strike” (7X24) shows that they should have been a bright warning light to Bajor about the Federation.

The Maquis, unlike most of the enemies of the Federation, are sympathetic because of their political stance, not because of the charisma of the actors playing their most prominent figures (I’m looking at you, Marc Alaimo/Gul Dukat). This sympathy pokes the most holes in the Federation’s status as an optimistic utopia, without turning it into a dark and gritty dystopia as in later incarnations.

On the other hand, the idea that a small group of rebels might get crushed between the machinations of major powers also seems appropriate. Their association with Native American groups through characters like Chakotay in Voyager and suggested by the TNG episode “Journey’s End” (7X20) is significant. They are the group that no North American progressives can ignore if they want to create a reasonable approximation of an optimistic utopia, but they are also the one that they have the most difficulty respecting and incorporating into their visions of the future.

Their claims are reasonable – that their relationship to their land be respected and prioritised – but their lack of representation among the decision makers means that their concerns are derided or ignored. As other concerns crop up they are sidelined and, in the case of the Maquis, crushed because the ‘good guys’ didn’t listen to them. It’s a shame that, in DS9, they’re mainly played by White actors after Bernie Casey/Commander Calvin Hudson, although in Voyager this is less of an issue.

One of the problems with the Maquis in season 5 of DS9 has been the inconsistency of how they are portrayed. In “Rapture” (5X10) Sisko forgives Kasidy Yates for her involvement with the Maquis immediately (why? She’s needed for a different plot!); he doesn’t get over Eddington’s “betrayal” until he goes out in his “Blaze of Glory”, and does terrible things in the episode “For the Uniform” (5X13) in order to persuade Eddington to turn himself over to the Federation. But in that episode the Maquis also go further than ever before, creating biological weapons to drive the Cardassians from the worlds that they have occupied – it doesn’t seem to fit their (ill-defined, as most political things in ’90s science-fictional television) philosophy.

I couldn’t see Voyager’s Chakotay going along with it, for example; although B’Elanna Torres might be more enthusiastic. It also seems designed to kill the audience sympathy with these beleaguered freedom fighters. The show suggests that these bio-weapons move slowly enough to allow people to escape unscathed, which also seems like a cop-out. I am glad that “Blaze of Glory” happened to get the Maquis (and DS9) beyond “For the Uniform”. It would have been an unfortunate ending for them, otherwise.

A commentary on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 5: Part 3 – Bajor and the Federation

The episode “The Darkness and the Light” (5X11) – Bryan Fuller’s first Star Trek credit – complicates our understanding of the Bajoran resistance to the Cardassian occupation. In this episode, we learn of a bomb used by Kira Nerys to assassinate a brutal Cardassian leader which took the lives of twenty-three individuals, including civilians.

I don’t have much to say about this episode – it wasn’t terribly surprising to learn that resistance to a violent occupation led to some unfortunate casualties. As Kira argues, the Cardassians were occupying Bajor – anyone there was complicit. I remain fully sympathetic to the Bajoran resistance. But that sympathy is one of the reasons I find myself struggling to support Bajor’s petition to join the Federation, set to be decided in the previous episode, “Rapture” (5X10).

Some background: my home country, the United Kingdom, is in the process of leaving an economic and political federation, the European Union. I voted to remain in the EU in 2016, and would do so again in the event of a second referendum. But having spent a lot of time in Greece I can also see how EU countries have been treated badly by other member states, having economic austerity thrust upon them when it is not in the best interests of their people. For a small state with a strong identity and a long history, including occupation, entering into a political union may end up being more trouble than it is worth.

There are two key exchanges in “Rapture” that made me realise these complications. The first is when Kai Winn tells Major Kira that Bajor has had only five years of “freedom” between the Cardassian occupation and joining the Federation. Kira notes that Bajor will still be free as a member of the Federation, but seems oblivious to the fact that people like Kai Winn will be able to easily spin Federation membership as un-freedom and the cause of any continuing blight on the planet. The Federation will need to make damn sure its benefit to the people of Bajor is clear, if indeed membership of the Federation is in their best interests.

The second exchange is between Captain Benjamin Sisko and Federation Admiral Whatly about what’s next for Bajor after joining the Federation. There’s choosing Federation Council Members (note that the word “electing” is not used); but I found myself surprisingly troubled by the next step: “The Bajoran militia has to be absorbed into Starfleet.” Now, I never thought that I was particularly bothered by the persistent rumours that the EU might integrate the armies of its member states – the whole point was to stop them going to war with one another anyway.

But something about that line disturbed me. Perhaps it was the emphasis on Starfleet as a military organization rather than an exploratory one. Or perhaps that at an interstellar level and integrated army seems like a bad idea (protecting planets seems easier to me than protecting solar systems). I think the core idea that bothers me, though, is that I’ve come to recognise that the government becomes less trustworthy the further away it is. Local government is hated for being ineffective, not distant; when the government is far away in Brussels, or Ottawa, or Washington, or San Francisco, it is easier to view it as distant and uncaring.

In trying to think about how the Federation might combat this perspective, I found myself thinking back to 2015, when we were watching The Next Generation and I was reading Ursula K Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994). The Ekumen of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle is similar to the Federation, although there is little disparity between the species of each planet (all are descended from the Hain) and no scope for interstellar conflict, after the early novel City of Illusions (1967).

In the Hainish Cycle, interstellar travel is just so difficult that the kind of crisis that the Federation encounters with the Dominion is impossible, and thus space exploration cannot help but be mutually beneficial, explorative, co-operative. The Ekumen is more of a loose association than a political union. I think that it offers a more hopeful future than the Federation, but it is a future where interplanetary migration is long, difficult, and requires leaving your entire life behind. Should it be more hopeful that these planets remain so isolated from one another?

A commentary on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 5: Part 2 – The Constable

A common theme in Deep Space Nine is complicity in the occupation of Bajor, and the resistance to that occupation. Having covered this previously with the Cardassians and Bajoran Major Kira Nerys – most notably in the episode “Necessary Evil” (2X08) – in season 5 the episode “Things Past” (5X08) shows Constable Odo’s relationship with the occupiers and occupees.

In previous episodes, Odo has usually been recognised as just an arbitrator between the two sides, but there’s plenty of examples of Odo showing himself to have authoritarian leanings. In the Mirror Universe, shown in “Crossover” (2X23), he happily works with the Klingon/Cadassian/Bajorian alliance to enslave the humans that fill the role of prime universe Bajorans on this version of Terok Nor. It is an irony that the DS9 writers seemed to enjoy: that the being with no fixed shape values order over all else, until he learns to value justice.

“Things Past” is also an episode about how much Odo has changed over the years. He has regrets about his role in the occupation, his relationship with his people, and his relationship with Kira. But he was a police officer in an authoritarian state, and no one comes out of that looking good. An underlying theme in this episode, as in many of those episodes set during the occupation, is the validity of the law in an occupied state. It’s a theme that retains its relevance in the world today.

This episode follows fairly closely after “Trials and Tribble-ations” (5X06), both of these are time travel episodes. Fortunately, the DS9 writers are happy to use all the tools in the science fiction handbook to explore the resonance of the past in the present.

This theme was also significant in the intervening episode, “Let He Who Is Without Sin…”. Having written about it before, all I’ll mention here is that the relationship the New Essentialists have to the past that they want to restore is quite different to that held by Jadzia, who actually remembers that era through the Dax symbiont.