Saturday, January 01, 2005

Future Imperfect: The Gods and Their Machines, Oisin McGann

Spoiler Alert: You should not be reading this blog if you don’t like spoilers.

Oisín McGann, The Gods and Their Machines (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 2004).
(I've just been informed this is coming out from Tor shortly. Good.)

Some of the arguments I’m going to be making about sf in general, and children’s sf in particular, are rather contentious, so I want to start by talking about a book I both like, and which I think is what I have (elsewhere) called full science fiction.

“Full science fiction” contains the following: a sense of cognitive estrangement, a consistent rupture with expectations, some kind of resolution, and most important when we come to children’s science fiction, consequence.

In very old sf it is the absence of consequence that can be most frustrating for the modern reader: an invention appears, causes catastrophe and is blown up at the end. The world returns to the status quo. John Clute has argued that this is about the profound fear of the future, but as a historian I tend to think it is about an inability to speculate about the future. “History” (as opposed to chronicle) only really emerges around the 1850s, and you need to have a sense of historical change before you can start thinking about change in the future. The development of sf has gone hand in glove with the emergence of new historiographical theories (Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt is a brilliant illustration of the theories of the environmental Annalist School.

All of this will tie in to my book discussion, honest.

In children’s fiction, recursion—the return to the home—is so common that it mostly gets taken for granted. Maria Nikolajeva argued that it may even be one of the defining elements of children’s fiction.

The difficulty is that most modern sf (and certainly that we tend to regard as “good”) is hostile to recursion. The point is that the world be changed permanently, we have to go on and deal with the consequences of that change. If children’s sf is to work on adult terms (and given that all the evidence I’m receiving from the surveys I’ve been carrying out – thank you Kim Selling of Australia—is that children who read sf read across the adult and children’s market simultaneously) then this issue of consequence may really matter.

Now to Oisín McGann’s The Gods and Their Machines .

The Gods and Their Machines is set possibly in the future, possibly elsewhere. One or two moments suggest a post-cataclysm future.

Rich, technologically advanced Altima is threatened by terrorists from the Fringelands of Bartokhrin. As Altima is dependent on migrant workers from these fringelands, they are caught in the classic trap of how to ensure their own safety. Their answer has been bombing raids to wipe out nests of terrorists and suicide bombers. Chamus, the first of our protagonists, is son and grandson of aviation engineers and is himself training to fly.

After the massacre of his class Chamus crashes his biplane in the Fringelands and meets up with Riadni, a girl of Bartokhrin. Bartokhrin is agricultural, deeply religious and oppresses its women who are kept quiet, and must wear masks of make-up and heavy wigs. Riadni has grown up in a culture where bombing raids are normal and everyone knows someone who has been injured or killed. As a prosperous farmer’s daughter she is also aware that Altima is involved in Bartokhrin in many ways.

Riadni is a gender rebel, and as part of her rebellion joins the terrorists. When she stumbles on Chamus she sees him as her route to status. She only changes her mind when she realises that they will kill him,

The journey to safety is a fairly conventional narrative in children’s fiction, so what is interesting is the way in which McGann handles her political material and the way it constructs her society. You could read the novel as allegory, but I don’t think that does justice to the complexity of what McGann achieves. As the children travel they learn things about each other’s culture in ways which are subtle and complex: Riadni realises both the humanity of the enemy, and that the Martyrs of whom she has heard so much are not entirely willing volunteers. Chamus learns that many of the migrants in his city, of whom he has been taught to wonder “why are they here when they hate us so” are themselves displaced by Altima’s economic adventures in the Fringelands. He (and we) get to see that Altima’s technological superiority has been dug from the lands of Bartokhrin and has polluted the rivers, and destroyed the economy.

Neither Chamus nor Riadni actually change their mind about their own countries—McGann avoids any such sentimentality—but both are forced to accept the world as a figure ground puzzle. On p. 108 Riadni queries why Chamus keeps referring to “the Fringelands”. “What are they on the fringe of?”

‘Altima…I think,’ Chamus muttered. He had never thought of it that way.
‘Bartokhrin’s twice the size of Altima,’ Riadni laughed. How can we be on your edge?’
Cognitive estrangement is thus a part of the plot. The two protagonists get to be travellers in strange worlds, and in neither case do they come to command them: they remain strangers, but learning strangers. This extends to the end of the novel. Riadni and Chamus manage to deflect the plot to scatter radioactive dust over Bartokhrin—after which Altima will offer its army as aid workers—but Chamus discovers his own beloved grandfather is one of the plotters. Evil is not some nameless conspirator with a moustache and sinister laugh, but a person we have grown to like. It also makes it clear that evil behaviour is part of a wider set of issues, about self-determination, patriotism, economic ambition: all of which are neutral concepts in themselves. When the plot is uncovered Altima is over-taken by recriminations, but it is made clear that only some of these are about the evil of the plot itself. Others are about whether it was simply mismanaged.

At the end of the novel, Chamus and Riadni have forged a friendship, but it is a friendship that leads into the future: it isn’t a solution to anything, nothing has changed between their two countries. Neither of the two protagonists chooses to leave their own culture. Instead, what McGann is offering is another set of consequences based on the idea that cultural knowledge is as much a vector for change as is a material adventure.


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