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.

Words for Ursula K. Le Guin

This Monday, Ursula K. Le Guin died. The news broke yesterday. I don’t know what to say, but I’ve written so much about Le Guin since I started reading her work in 2009 that I thought I would just go through it and post whatever seemed appropriate here from my own notes and the quotations I’ve taken from her work. I hope that it can be taken in some way as being in honour of her. There was no one else quite like her.

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Top Ten Books 2017

Twenty Seventeen was a strange year. After the political turmoil of 2016, we started facing the repercussions of those choices, which were largely – but not exclusively – terrible. From my perspective as a citizen of the UK (albeit one who lives in Canada), the political highlight came just after 5pm EST on Thursday 8th June when, after a dispiriting build up the exit poll from the General Election revealed a hung parliament with Labour gains in extraordinary places. Nevertheless, this was not a victory (depending on how you define victory, that is); it was, however, a salient reminder that we must not give up hope, and that fighting towards a better future is always a good idea.

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A One-Body Problem

After the release of Ken Liu’s translation Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem it ended up on the reading lists of a lot of powerful people. A recent interview with US President Barack Obama in the New York Times includes his reflections on the trilogy, which he read over the last couple of years of his presidency. He commented,

“The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty – not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade.”

I found it interesting to see such a powerful figure comment on a book about the big picture, but it also reminded me of something I’d thought about the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series while reading The Dark Forest and Death’s End that hasn’t yet make it into any of my writing about those books. In these novels [SPOILERS AHEAD!], there are a number of reactions to the Trisolaran invasion, from the ETO collaborators to the Wallfacer project, but no one in the trilogy, as far as I can recall, simply denies that the invasion is happening.

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A Postscript to We Were Rebels Once

I’m not certain that I got across what I was trying to say in my last blog, written as it was over several days when I had a lot going on. But I decided to listen to the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time podcast on Animal Farm and it made a few of the points I wanted to make clear to me. I listened to the audiobook of Animal Farm last September, and I think I also got it more then, too. The basis of this thought is that Orwell was a committed socialist – he fought on the side of socialism in the Spanish Civil War, he worked with the Labour Party and was friends with Nye Bevan; but his writing was generally critical of the Left – be it Stalin or socialism – and less obviously so of the Right. Therefore he was adopted, after his death, by the Right and you are as likely to find someone on the Right quoting Animal Farm (or Nineteen Eighty-Four) about the dangers of socialism or communism as you are someone who would have actually agreed with Orwell politically.

When I listened to Animal Farm last September one of the things that struck me the most was the way in which history was re-written, and how the animals of the farm (particularly Boxer) were taken in through their devotion to Napoleon so much so that he could re-write history that they themselves lived through. Yesterday, Meryl Streep’s comments about the PEOTUS at The Golden Globes were criticised by some on the basis that Hollywood celebrities were not to be listened to – by fans of Ronald Reagan who had just elected a reality television host as president. But the most interesting comment that I saw was journalist Glenn Greenwald’s observation that talk radio hosts are considered legitimate political commentators when they are just as wealthy and privileged (often more so) than Meryl Streep, just as distanced from the everyday lives of ordinary people. I can’t help thinking that between Nancy Isenberg’s history of class in the USA and Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men I should be able to put together an answer to this, but in many ways being aware of the problem is enough.

Animal Farm is very specific to Orwell’s contemporary Russia in many ways but there are also elements to Napoleon’s take-over that are general and relevant right now. One of the messages of Animal Farm and, now, Rogue One is that one of the most important aspects of progress is longevity, is continuing to make the future better than the present – donkeys live a long time. In Rogue One, the Rebels sacrifice their lives but are successful (for about a quarter of a century, at least); in Animal Farm, what initially looks like a utopia is ultimately destroyed by those in power.

But this is still not quite getting across what I was thinking. Animal Farm can be read in a number of very specific ways – against communism, against socialism, and against totalitarianism. Because I have read Homage to Catalonia and Down And Out in Paris and London and I studied Shooting an Elephant and I know a little about Orwell’s life beyond his fiction, I know (or believe) that he intended the latter reading; but history allowed those aspects to be downplayed in favour of a screed against the USSR during the Cold War. This is why I worry that, despite what the writers of Rogue One say, selling Death Star pyjama pants sends a very different message about how this film should be understood, one that could do lasting damage.

And finally, the way I believe that this damage can be countered is by progressive readings of these texts, by those of us on the Left (however broadly we define that) communicating our readings of these texts and the very important messages that they carry, by claiming these narratives for our cause. But reading these texts needs individual media literacy, literacy that governments like Napoleon’s and those in contemporary, real, human world want to discourage by telling us it’s just a story about animals, just a space fantasy, just entertainment. We can work to make things more than that.

When stories are in the public realm, their meanings change over time – in a way, this is precisely what Rogue One is doing to the original Star Wars trilogy. But how these changes happen is variable and difficult to control and not necessarily in the hands of the writers.