Future Interrupted — Settled, Settling, Settlement
Interzone #267 is now a thing in the world. Anyone with an interest in getting hold of it can do so via the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.
The magazine opens with a piece by Martin McGrath about the history of the James White Award, which is currently open for submissions. The competition is aimed at non-professional writers who are just starting out, winner receive £200 and get their story published in Interzone.
This month’s non-fiction is particularly fine as Nina Allan writes about her experiences with Scottish SF and the things that distinguish it from English SF. I think this is a really important question and not just because of Scotland’s growing and understandable desire to divest themselves of Britishness.What makes this question important is the fact that the institutions and literature of British science fiction have been allowed to reach a state of disrepair so profound that one could effectively talk about there no longer being such a thing as ‘British genre culture’. However, rather than viewing this as something bad, I think it marks the perfect time to begin some wide-ranging discussions about a) what we want to do with the institutions of British genre culture and b) what British science fiction should mean going forward. Allan’s piece concludes with this wonderful piece of provocation:
If a significant proportion of English science fiction finds itself looking increasingly parochial and irrelevant, one further question remains to be asked: is this lack of political engagement the result of indifference, or despair?
I must admit… the more global events conspire to drag my political sympathies to the left, the more disgusted and alienated I become from genre culture and the fiction it produces. I could say a lot more about this question but suffice it to say that we really should not be surprised when a cultural milieu devoid of solidarity starts producing books that are full of really terrible politics. Speaking of which, my column from this issue is devoted to Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series… but you’ll have to wait a few months in order to read that for free!
Other non-fictional bits and pieces from this month’s issue include Maureen Kincaid Speller on Tade Thompson, Juliet E. McKenna on Chris Beckett, me on E. Catherine Tobler’s novella “The Kraken Sea” and reviews by Stephen Theaker, Lawrence Osborn, Jack Deighton, Duncan Lunan, and Barbara Melville as well as the usual film and TV columns by Nick Lowe and Tony Lee.
This month’s fiction includes:
- “Alts” by Harmony Neal
- “Dogfights in Olympus and Other Absences” by Ryan Row
- “The Hunger of Auntie Tiger” by Sarah Brooks
- “You Make Pattaya” by Rich Larson
- “Rock, Paper, Incisors” by David Cleden
- “My Generations Shall Praise” by Samantha Henderson
This month’s reprint continues my voyage through the world of recent debut novels. This month’s piece felt like a bit of a cheat as I only decided to pick up Claire Vanye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus after it had been widely discussed by the mainstream media and highlighted by this thoroughly excellent article by the author about the need to destroy the institutions of mainstream literary culture lest they continue imposing their fucked up values on the world.
Anyway… here is my nineteenth Future Interrupted column entitled “Settled, Settling, Settlement”.
Back in the days when people saw reviewers as conversation-starters rather than an army of unpaid interns under the command of the publishing industry, it was often thought wise to check one’s fire when approaching the work of a first-time novelist. People argued that first-time novelists were still learning to work at novel length and that a drift of overly-harsh reviews would likely damage not only the writer’s confidence but also their chance of getting to write a second (and presumably less error-strewn) novel. While this may have been true ‘back in the day’ it seems like wildly inappropriate advice given that fewer and fewer people listen to reviewers and more and more authors put themselves through high-energy creative writing programmes before they get anywhere near publishing their first novel.
Gold Fame Citrus may well be Claire Vaye Watkins’ first novel but it is hardly her first canter around the stable yard as her debut short story collection Battleborn won no less than five mainstream literary awards and landed its author a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. Neither timid nor tentative, Watkins writes with the power and confidence of a seasoned veteran who is not afraid to race ahead and force her readers to play catch-up.
The novel is set in a future America where an apocalyptic drought has drained reservoirs, destroyed crops, and made much of the West coast uninhabitable to either man or beast. We enter this world through a sunburnt California where the flawed, the desperate, and the fucked-up are trying to stay alive amidst the vacated pleasure palaces of the Californian super-rich. Our protagonists are fairly typical of this stubborn and self-destructive breed in that they recall the kinds of people who showed up in California during the Summer of Love and wound up with no place else to go: Luz was the child-mascot of a more hopeful California who slid into modelling (and quite possibly sex work) after an overbearing father thought it might be a good idea to turn her into an emancipated minor. Ray is a surfer and a former soldier who is trying to keep a lid on both his past and present fears. Both characters are hideously flawed but they appear to have settled for each other.
Watkins’ writing reflects the dried-out instability of her characters and landscapes: Short, uncluttered sentences lead us from one moment of outstanding beauty to another while the blazing heat and dried up emotional aquifers make any excess of emotion feel both alien and inappropriate. Written in a tight third-person, the book lavishes attention on surface details and minor fluctuations in the characters’ relationships without ever bothering to look beneath the surface. This fear of interiority is manifest in a wonderful scene where Ray and Luz come across a forest only to discover that the trees are nothing but dried out husks. Throw a rock at these decorative fossils and chances are that it’ll pass straight through.
By denying us access to the details of her characters’ backgrounds, Watkins encourages us to view their behaviour as a mystery in need of a solution. We struggle to understand what Ray and Luz see in each other and we struggle to understand their decision to ‘adopt’ a small child and so we gain the impression that Gold Fame Citrus is a world in which people are so devoid of agency that they struggle to do anything but settle. For example, Ray is in no position to make informed decisions about his family’s future and yet lacks the energy to question his role as family patriarch. Similarly, while Luz is intelligent enough to be more than a sex object, she settles quite comfortably into a state of learned helplessness that flatters Ray’s ego and excuses her from all responsibility for her actions. Looking good, babygirl shouts Ray as he needlessly toils in the blazing sun to turn their empty swimming pool into a skateboard ramp while Luz poses in a series of sequined ball gowns and dusty fur coats.
As languidly beautiful as the novel’s dune-like expanses of text may be, Watkins keeps wrenching us from our reverie with lists, inserts, juxtapositions and other eruptions of typographical chaos signalling the destruction of one psychological settlement and the creation of another. Desperately unhappy and unwilling to work out why, the couple force themselves through a series of radical re-inventions that find them adopting a child, trying to leave California, and ultimately splitting up in a doomed attempt to ‘find help’. With both Luz and Ray dying of sunstroke, the novel moves things on to a settlement that appears far more welcoming and stable… as long as you don’t look too closely.
The metaphorical core of the novel is a desert that is spreading across America consuming everything from farms and cities to mountain ranges. While the government claims this expanse is nothing but a murderous wasteland, a group of activists are trying to convince the world that it is filled with both life and potential. Despite having access to both vehicles and supplies of water, the group positions itself on the edge of the dune sea and rearrange their vehicles every time the desert expands. Aside from being a wonderful representation of the need to keep making adjustments to keep relationships alive, the group’s insistence that a desert is full of weird new species echoes our own willingness to believe in the potential of unhealthy relationships: We don’t leave because we’re comfortable with what we’re used to and if someone offers us a falsehood that justifies that decision then we will lick their boots and call them Jesus.
Watkins’ cultists are as steeped in Californian mythology as her dried out swimming pools and fading starlets as the decision to build a new society on the edges of a desert recalls the array of cults and communes that emerged from 1960s counterculture. In fact, Watkins has every reason to be inspired by the idea of Californian death cults as her father was a junior member of the Manson Family who sat around the campfire when Charlie first articulated the Helter Skelter prophecy that would lead his coterie of desperate and hollowed-out hippies first into Death Valley and then on into murderous fantasies of racial holy war.
Gold Fame Citrus can be viewed as an attempt to foster understanding for people who choose to settle. Watkins’ cult leader is a criminal who exploits as easily as he manipulates but he makes his victims feel special and provides them with the excuses they need to justify staying exactly where they are. By drawing a veil over her characters’ motivations, Watkins encourages us to come up with our own understanding of why the various characters seem reluctant to take their chances and head out into what they know to be a murderous desert. Why take your chances out there when you can be happy enough in here? Smoke this weed, chew this root, enjoy this sex, perform this ritual, watch this superhero movie, purchase this stuff and the horrors of your predicament just won’t bother you anymore.
The universal relevance of this trade-off reflects the way that capitalism has shifted from being an engine of self-improvement to an engine of acquiescence; a sinister cult that promises much, delivers little, and exploits perpetually. Rather than encouraging us to improve ourselves, today’s capitalist institutions break us down and drain us of energy through constant demands on our time and attention. Neoliberalism has eroded the distinction between work and private lives to the point where we simply do not have the time to imagine something better. Capitalism did not survive the crisis of 2008 because it was the only way to organise human civilisation, it survived because nobody had the energy to propose an alternative and so we acquiesced and went in search of lies that made us feel better about our willingness to settle for a system that is beneath our contempt.
Gold Fame Citrus is one of those novels where everything seems to work: The writing is atmospheric, the imagery resonant, the characters are complex, and the themes are endlessly thought-provoking. As much a work of science fiction as a meditation on the darker corners of Californian experience, Gold Fame Citrus dares to suggest that Charles Manson may well have been the true herald of 21st Century capitalism.