Review of So Long Been Dreaming

My review of the book So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy (edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004) has been published in The Journal of Postcolonial Theory and Theology. It can be read online in pdf form.

Since constraints of space necessitated that I not go into too much detail about any particular story in this collection, below I am posting an earlier draft of the review, before I shortened and reworked it into the form that appeared in the journal.

The collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories So Long Been Dreaming connects not merely with the postcolonial aspect of the journal for which this review is being written, but also the element of theology and religion. As Nalo Hopkinson observes in her introduction, colonization and empire are frequent motifs in science fiction. As with much science fiction and fantasy, in imagining situations of colonization and oppression in realms of the fantastic and the future, the authors manage not only to offer symbolic depictions of these subjects but also to raise subversive questions that challenge both the oppressors and the oppressed and their descendants to think about themselves and their experiences in new ways.

Part one focuses on the body. In “Deep End,” Nisi Shawl depicts a scenario in which the minds of criminals have transferred into a computer on an interstellar spacecraft and have been sent to explore a new world, being downloaded into clones of the bodies of others who will make the journey themselves once it has been determined that it is safe to do so. As one of them contemplates the possibility that her clone body may not be in perfect health and she may need to be transferred to another body, she reflects on, among other things, the question of what difference it may make if the color of the new cloned body’s skin is different from the one she was born with. Science fiction regularly features the swapping of minds and bodies, and in so doing raises questions about the nature of human identity and “race.” At one point the song “Rivers of Babylon” is played on the ship – a song the lyrics of which come from Psalm 137, and which reflects the experience of being exiled by colonial powers. The Bible, of course, became literature of the colonizers, and then again of those colonized. And so this fleeting musical reference hints at far more than is stated explicitly, about how motifs, literature, and even the very roles of oppressor and oppressed regularly change hands over the course of the ages.

Andrea Hairston’s story “Griots of the Galaxy” also features entities who take on new bodies and move from one existence to another. In this case, however, the entities who do so are intergalactic historians, gathering fragments of lives from across history in order to preserve whatever they can from being lost. In this story too, profound questions are explored too about the nature of culture, and whether it is possible or meaningful for the anthropologist or historian to “save” elements of a culture in danger of being lost, as mere observers, or whether it is more meaningful to be immersed and become involved, even with the cost that entails.

Suzette Mayr’s story “Toot Suite Matricia” is a rather obvious but nevertheless effective parable of mixed marriages and the experience of being caught between cultures, feeling in one’s new environs like a fish (or selkie) out of water. Even as it raises this metaphor to the reader’s conscious awareness, it also resists it, and brings into the picture the experience of those who are descended from such transgressors of cultural boundaries, and the fact that living in between cultures leaves on feeling alienated from both.

Larissa Lai’s “Rachel” picks up the life of the replicant Rachel from Blade Runner, or perhaps another of the same model, featuring some of the same details. These borrowed details in fact serve to nicely highlight the subject of “borrowed” memories that are given to an android, making it possible for it to think that it is human. Memory – whether individual or cultural – is open to distortion and even fabrication. And so in a volume dedicated to postcolonial authors and themes, the question of how what we remember, or have been caused to “remember” about the past shapes our identity, and what happens when we discover that the past we have inherited may not correspond to reality – posing poignant questions for the oppressor and not only the victim.

Part two focuses on future earth. “Terminal Avenue” by Eden Robinson explores a relatively near future, in which present trends and trajectories are traced in relation to the experience of Native Americans. As the story shifts back and forth between different times in the main character’s life, the reader is forced to understand what is involved in embracing an identity that of necessity involves embracing mistreatment and subjugation, which might be interpreted as a form of masochism. “When Scarabs Multiply” by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu explores patriarchy and regime change in post-nuclear holocaust Niger.

Vandana Singh’s “Delhi” is my personal favorite from the collection. Through the story of an individual who catches glimpses of and interacts with individuals from other periods in time (in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the magical realism of Salman Rushdie), Singh manages to do more than provide a glimpse of a possible future for Delhi from the vantage point of the present. She also reflects on the nature of human interconnectedness, matters of fate and free will, and the way cities seem to become collective organisms that act with a will of their own.

Tamai Kobayashi’s story “Panopte’s Eye” rounds off part two, returning to the theme of a post-cataclysm earth ruined by corporations, where humans eke out an existence as best they can. The story is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, and features backstory about arks that had been created to preserve living things in underground habitats as life on the earth’s surface grew increasingly dangerous and chaotic.

Part three is entitled Allegory and contains only two stories. The first, by Sheree Thomas, is called “The Grassdreaming Tree.” Straddling the boundary between science fiction and fantasy, the story is set on an alien world, but its characters seem to share earth’s history of tension between people with different shades of skin. The situations seem to have been reversed, as an unusual magical white woman creates tensions through her magic-laden visits to a community. Wayde Compton’s “The Blue Road: A Fairy Tale” is more directly allegorical, telling a symbolic story in the same vein as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – although with symbolism that is rather less straightforward to interpret.

Part four is called Encounters with the Alien and begins with Karin Lowachee’s “The Forgotten One,” a story of children left behind in the course of an interstellar war. In a sense, the story both incorporates and reverses the traditional motif of colonialism, as the story explores the situation of children reclaimed from a would-be colonial world, the only home they’ve ever known.

Greg van Eekhout’s “Native Aliens” explores another sort of postcolonial experience, that of people who live most of their lives in a place they or their ancestors are not originally from, but which has for many years been home, and their execution or exile when colonial occupation ends. A story of this sort from Earth’s past is told interspersed with a story about future descendants of humans, returning to a “home” that they have never known, and to which their experience and even evolution has no longer suited them. The surgical intervention necessary for such an adaptation to a changed environment provides a poignant symbol of the experience of all who experience the realities of colonial and postcolonial experience.

Celu Amberstone’s “Refugees” features waves of interplanetary refugees from an Earth that humanity has destroyed. A group of more recent arrivals seeks to adjust to the shamanic practices that those who came to a particular planet before them practice as a way of maintaining harmony with their new world. The benevolence of an alien race that helped them come to this place, and requires their obedience to rules, is questioned over the course of the story, as is whether harsh decisions aimed at ensuring humanity’s survival are an acceptable price to pay.

“Trade Winds” by devorah major focuses on the challenges of cross-cultural communication, as it too explores the question of whether anywhere can be “home.” Carole McDonnell’s “Lingua Franca” symbolizes the changing linguistic realities of colonial and postcolonial situations, as a Federation from Earth seeks to remedy the “problem” of a particular planet’s inhabitants, providing surgical implants that will allow them to communicate via verbal-aural means rather than by sign language alone. Through the eyes of one woman’s reticence and her daughter’s operation, we experience not only a fascinating sci-fi scenario but a picture of the generational divide that typifies not merely postcolonial settings but increasingly fits human experience in general, in our era when changing technology leaves each generation feeling left further and further behind.

Ven Begamudré’s “Out of Sync” incorporates motifs from the Hindu tradition as it tells a story of a world where humans now dwell, but which they share with beings of energy and light known as the Khond, as well as “Demis” (who are the offspring of humans and the Khond) and apparently others as well.

The final section of the book is called “Re-Imagining the Past.” This is particularly important to note, since those reading expecting science fiction will find themselves confused and disoriented. In fact, the first of the three stories in this section, “The Living Roots” by Opal Palmer Adisa, is set not in the future but the recent past or present, and imagines people who escaped enslavement during the colonial era by moving underground and adapting to life there – literalizing in the process the idea of being rooted in the land. The story raises the fascinating question of whether adaptation to escape enslavement, or to cope with domination by others, does not in fact transform even in the process of enabling survival of both people and traditions. So too Maya Khankhoje’s “Journey Into the Vortex” which tells a story of loves that transgress boundaries of nation, culture, and clan. The final story returns to the genre of science fiction as Tobias Buckell’s “Necahual” tells a story of how colonial absorption of territory is often justified as “saving” people from the tyranny of others. In this interstellar scenario, the need to not merely survive but live and thrive is emphasized, as is the importance of finding ways to adapt to changing realities in the process, and the question of whether slow social evolution or rapid radical upheaval accomplishes more lasting transformation.

Because of the nature of this journal, I have focused on certain aspects of these stories. And so it needs to be emphasized that they do not treat their postcolonial subject matter in a heavy-handed manner. In many instances the first and most important thing to be said is that these are compelling works of science fiction and fantasy in their own right. It is a danger in the realm of the postcolonial that marginalization will simply continue in a different guise, with postcolonial people writing postcolonial works with postcolonial themes and using postcolonial methods. And so it bears emphasizing that these stories are not merely of postcolonial interest, and hopefully will be read and enjoyed by a wide readership simply as excellent stories in their genres.

The stories, written independently and reflecting as wide a variety of postcolonial perspectives and experiences as one can imagine, regularly converge on similar themes and motifs. How the past, present and future are connected, how traditions of culture, religion, identity and even species are maintained and passed on, and the nature of “home” all recur and are explored in many distinctive ways.  Every story can be said to feature at least one character who is “alien” in some sense, and what it means to be “alien” and who occupies that role often changes as the story evolves.

Fans of science fiction as well as those interested in finding short stories that speak to and about the postcolonial experience will enjoy what this volume offers. As Uppinder Mehan says in the final paragraph of his concluding reflection on this volume, “Postcolonial writers have given contemporary literature some of its most notable fiction about the realities of conqueror and conquered, yet we’ve rarely created stories that imagine how life might be otherwise” (p.270). And so for this reason, if none other, this volume represent a welcome addition to the category of postcolonial literature – not merely additional stories, but an expansion of genre, one in which the volume’s authors express themselves effectively and often provocatively.

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