Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ian Watson, Alien Embassy (1977)

On with Watson. This struck me as a lesser addition to the Watson canon (the ‘Watscanon’?). Our heroine is Lila, a young girl in an East African coastal village, living in a fairly Spartan but generally harmonious and (even) borderline Utopian post-Industrial 22nd-century. Flight to the stars is effected not by technology—20th-century impatient obsession with machines very nearly brought about global disaster—but by a mode of astral projection achieved via tantric meditation and earnest spiritual shagging of the sort associated with Sting and Trudie Styler. All this is coordinated by an organisation called BARDO, the ‘Bureau of Astronomy Research and Development Organisation’, who also guard against global overpopulation by ensuring everybody carries a contraceptive implant embedded in their arm. Lila manifests prodigious tantric talent, and is whisked away to a facility in Florida where she learns the skills of the psychic astronaut, eventually zipping out to a planet called ‘Asura’, where the natives are tree-bird hybrids. One occupational hazard of using lengthy bouts of fucking as your launch-mechanism for interstellar flight, of course, is that your female astronauts are liable to get pregnant, and this is indeed what happens to Lila (for reasons explained in the novel, astronauts don't have the contraceptive implants, you see). By this point in the story Watson's narrative has reached, in a well-written but rather leisurely and, frankly, unengaging manner, page 120 of a 300 page book. Since the story can hardly continue in this agon-free drama-less manner, We The Readers expect a twist; and a twist duly arrives ... two, in fact, Watson twice pulling the carpet from underneath to make us lurch about and go "hey!", crossly.

Watson gets the credit for writing the first female black narrator in SF (did he really? Hard to credit it!); and the postcolonial bona fides of the novel are more-or-less impeccable: from Africa to Florida to China and Nepal, white characters the minority, the old Western cultural assumptions eviscerated. But ... well, I’m almost tempted to utter a foolishness of the ‘this sort of thing was much more radical and striking in 1977 than it is today’ sort. Certainly, and thankfully, there are many more SF novels with people-of-colour narrators and global settings than used to be the case. But there’s something rather condescending and, indeed, lame about praising a novel on those sorts of terms ('sure it's feeble, but its feebleness was much less noticeable 40 years ago!'). In fact, however respectfully and attentively Watson has recreated his ‘Eastern’ spiritual idiom, there’s something rather flat and affectless about this novel. The twists, revelations of hidden secrets, chase-and-pursuit, even a scene [SPOILER] at the end when Lila, driven to distraction by the secrets she has uncovered, murders, or attempts to murder her own child—it’s all expertly rendered, sensitively written, full of skill and yet oddly unengaging. As if the principle of ‘bodhicittam notsrjet’—look it up—though suppressed by the Bardo for its own purposes in the world of the novel, has nonetheless worked its way through into Watson’s own artistic practice. Conceivably, of course, this is a good rather than a bad thing; and if I were in a wiser and more mature reader I might even welcome the purgation of dramatic tension and the elimination of climax. Maybe it’s that the tantric stuff, of which there is a lot, here, both in terms of practice and interminable discussions of the philosophy of the universe, struck me not as wise and enlightening but narrow, unhelpful and tedious. Your Yogic mileage may vary.

Are there really no prior SF titles narrated by a woman of colour? I find that rather hard to believe.


Matt Thomas said...

I remember, aged 14, reading a guide, authored by Grub Smith most likely, to achieving "bodhicittam notsrjet" in FHM.
Scarred me, figuratively I must add, for life.

Ruzzock said...

First female black narrator ..?

The superb Floating Worlds (Cecelia Holland, 1975) had a black female narrator - notwithstanding the wonderful UK paperback cover which had a semi-naked buxom blonde being hoovered (no other word fits the bill) by something green and strange.

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Roberts said...

Quite right! “Floating Worlds” is a masterpiece.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"One occupational hazard of using lengthy bouts of fucking as your launch-mechanism for interstellar flight, of course, is that your female astronauts are liable to get pregnant"

Even though everyone has contraceptive implants? I guess that there is a chance of failure with anything, but still. This does look like "hmm, how can I put drama into this book? How about punishing the female lead for having sex?" Which doesn't fit what I know an Ian Watson at all, and I haven't read the book. But this was The Sixties (or so I assume, based on it being published in 1977), and SF from The Sixties is really strange in how mysogyny sometimes appears in weird places.

Adam Roberts said...

Rich: my abbreviated review doesn't do Watson justice: the 'astral astronauts are the only people who don't have to wear the contraceptive implants' thing isn't glossed over; on the contrary it's central to the novel, explained first by a cover story to do with focussing tantric energy, and then with a big reveal which I won't spoiler-mention here. It's not, I think, in any way a mysogynist.