Monday, May 16, 2011

The New Anthropological Science Fiction--A Review of Ekaterina Sedia

Over the past months, I have been trying to decide (if only in my own mind) what anthropological science fiction looks like today.  After all, if you're looking for "fully realized worlds" in the style of 1960's and 1970's fiction, you'll not find it.  Even authors synonymous with "anthropological science fiction" (e.g., Ursula K. Le Guin) have moved away from that style towards something more like what James Clifford has called "partial truths".  "Ethnographic truths are thus inherently partial – committed and incomplete” (7). But, that said, anthropological science fiction still exists, albeit not by that name.  Or, rather, what's produced today is a kind of anthropological science fiction under erasure. 

That is, rather than the full (and functionalist) anthropological sf of the 20th century, what seems "anthropological" about sf today are exactly those partial, contradiction-ridden evocations of difference and alterity--no easy way to divide the alien other from the self.  

Ekaterina Sedia's The House of Discarded Dreams (2010) follows the dream-like adventures of Vimbai and her roommates through a perambulating, mutating house rife with variously mischievous spirits. It is absolutely in the tradition of the mysterious house--the genius of place that exerts its (oftentimes baleful) influence over its residents, from Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables to Lovecraft and beyond.

But when I read Sedia's novel, I had a more contemporary text in mind--Richard Grant's View from the Oldest House (1989).  Both, after all, feature disaffected college students discovering GREAT TRUTHS amidst an inexplicable house.  In Grant's novel, it's the tiresome Turner Ashenden, a Stephen Daedalus knock-off who is a spiritless foil for the postmodern jouissance that swirls decadently around him.

Sedia's text is certainly in that bildungsroman tradition, and even takes the same mis-en-scene, but with Vimbai, a New Jersey college student with parents from Zimbabwe. Her own relationship to Harare is tenuous--some vague memories of pictures, coloring books, and her grandmother--i.e., a very different place than the Zimbabwe her politically active parents fled.

But the New Jersey beach house she moves into is just the place to explore tenuous memories, ambiguities and contradictions.  As the house inexplicably takes to sea, Vimbai and her roommates, Felix and Maya, gradually confront their unresolved conflicts through encounters with various spirits--baleful or beneficent.  For Vimbai, a bestiary of Shona folklore, from the appearance of her grandmother as an ancestral spirit (vadzimu) who, fortunately, can cook for the roommates, to the "man-fish" Njuzu, a "Zimbabwean urban legend" (110).  The house seems to materialize her ambiguous relationship to her family, to the experience of race and racism in the US, to her education (marine biology) and to her sexuality:

Obedient, Vimbai dreamt,  Her dreams were vivid--more vivid, it seemed, than the waking landscapes inside the house.  She dreamt of smells and sounds, of saturated solid planes of color.  She dreamt of Africa as she had half-remembered it from her trip, half-imagined from the coloring books her mother bought her, and then got upset when Vimbai colored children on the pages pink instead of brown. (142)
Their exploration of the house's "pocket universe" brings Vimbai up against these dreams, and up against a life that she only understands in half-articulated kaleidoscopes of memories inflected with her parent's post-colonial critiques of Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

As she confronts zombie horseshoe crabs stricken with soul loss, the cognitive dissonance is too much:

This collision of worldviews--one that allowed for talking horseshoe crabs and one that hinged on graduate school applications--made her breath catch in her throat, bowled her over, brought her to her knees, and she clutched her head in her hands. (86)
But, eventually, she begins to come to terms with herself qua the contradictory networks that run through her life, connecting her to family, to ancestors, to other women.  
With every passing second, the wrinkles on her grandmother's face grew more and more familiar, with the same inevitability as one's face is recognized in the mirror.  Soon, the vadzimu and Vimbai would not be able to tell where one ended and the other began. (242-43)
With her grandmother's animus, it is Vimbai who begins to spin her own kind of magic.  Telling her own contemporary versions of ngano (pedantic folk stories), Vimbai is able to make peace with the trickster-figure man-fish and bring some semblance of order to her world.

It is an enigmatic novel--certainly as potentially narcissistic as Grant's View From the Oldest House, but never so self-assured.  Instead, the house stands at the intersection of global networks that bring together places, cultures, identities, social class, race and sexualities.
"That there are forces in the world," Felix answered.  "Forces that run along invisible wires--like phone wires of the spirit, and sometimes you get trapped in them like Peb, and sometimes you stumble in the middle and get caught like a fly in a spider web . . ." (71)
Sailing off into the ocean falls in to that "there and back again" cycle as much Odyssean as Earthsea, but it is also a way of enjoining a world of transitional, sociohistorical connections--a physical movement to mirror the movement of immigrants.   

So what kind of anthropological science fiction is this?  Perhaps some would place it more with  fantasy, but I see here a desire to interrogate the world-making that characterized more assured science fiction in the 1960's and 1970's--think Michael Bishop's early work, but more complex and more uncertain.  With Sedia, it is not the experience of culture contact that is at stake, but the open-ended life of a person stretched between different identities, what Lila Abu-Lughod has called a "halfie".  Who is self?  Who is Other?

And this kind of question cascades into the consciousness of multiple connections puncturing holistic visions of identity: nature and culture, local and global.  An animism that takes Sedia's protagonists over and beneath the seas, and one that ultimately undermines our understanding of culture as unified, integrated and autonomously human (in the Cartesian sense).