Mystery and discovery in Hugo Award-winning novelist Elizabeth Bear's latest work, Ancestral Night, initially hooks but it's the speculative and complex world she constructs that's most rewarding.
Saga Press / Simon & Schuster
In her superb 2016 essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, sci-fi/fantasy author Kameron Hurley lays down a challenge for speculative fiction writers to use their proverbial pens to challenge convention. Pushing wide the margins to reveal new ways of thinking, doing and acting happens first in fiction, she writes, before permeating through to other spheres of society.
"Story is powerful. It can hold us back. Box us in. But it can also challenge our assumptions. Teach us to build structures. Or tear down those structures altogether and start over again anew. Anything is possible," she writes.
One of the fundamental roles of a sci-fi or fantasy author is, she says, to challenge our beliefs about what is normal. "[N]ormal is a lie. Normal is a story. As a writer, it's my job to construct new normal for people. It's my job to show folks what's possible. It's my job to rewrite narratives. Because we can change these narratives. We can choose better ones. We can tear it all down, and build it up again."
When writers inscribe future worlds that resemble too closely our own, it "isn't simplicity, it's laziness," she contends.
Ancestral Night, the sweeping new space saga from Hugo Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear, meets Hurley's challenge and then some. The book immerses readers in a strange, futuristic universe from the very first pages, and while some of the concepts and language – time is calculated in ans, dias and decians; characters interface with each other through built-in foxes and share sensos with each other as a way of instantly syncing up consciousness; the protagonist possesses afthands as well as forehands and grew up in a clade, which sounds suspiciously like a lesbian communist utopia -- may be difficult at first for readers who want simple, unchallenging texts or are not used to the more speculative side of the genre. Those who persevere, however, will quickly be hooked. The book's sweeping sense of mystery and discovery is what initially hooks, but it's the speculative and complex world Bear has constructed which is most rewarding in the end. This is 'big-idea' sci-fi at its best.
Ancestral Night is set in the distant future, its protagonist a young engineer on a space salvage tug which stumbles on a mysterious find. The plot erupts like a narrative Big Bang, and in no time at all there are space pirates, political terrorists, ancient civilizations, government intrigue, black holes, and more to contend with.
Most interestingly, however, Bear superbly demonstrates how to write a riveting sci-fi novel for modern-minded people, with subtle touches that distinguish her style from more traditional literary approaches. For example, even when dealing with humanoid characters, she often uses 'they' and 'them' pronouns, unless the characters affiliate themselves with a gender. By avoiding a binary gender default the story becomes more realistic, reflecting the much broader potential gender and sexual diversity of the future. When the protagonist's male-identified co-pilot develops an attraction to a character he meets at a space station, the use of 'they/them' pronouns is an effective way of obscuring the co-pilot's sexuality (in fact, all of her good-looking co-pilot's amorous flirtations are rendered in this style). It's good to leave readers wondering sometimes, and thus avoid the cliché of having an attractive self-identified male default into a heterosexual romantic norm.
The main character, Haimey, is a queer protagonist who's attracted to women. And although a past relationship (an affair with a woman who was married to another woman) plays a key role in the plot, the author doesn't dwell on Haimey's sexual identity or overplay it in lurid sex scenes; quite the opposite – Haimey deliberately uses the advanced neurochemical control people can exercise over their bodies in the future to reduce her sexual desire, maintaining an effectively asexual identity for much of the story. Bear, who won a Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2009 (for the positive portrayal of LGBT topics) in response to her 2008 novel The Stratford Man (Hell and Earth/Ink and Steel) (part of the Promethean Age series) continues to provide intelligent exploration of queer themes in her latest work.
More broadly, the novel serves as an effective counterweight to much of the grim, gritty, cynical sci-fi literature which is out there. The future is no paradise, but the peoples of the future have gotten a lot of our contemporary problems sorted out. The 'Synarche', as it is known, is effectively an intergalactic social democratic federation. There's a universal basic income (the "guarantee"), and it appears to be a broad welfare state. There's an expectation that people will work at something adequately to justify their 'resource allocation' but this expectation is broadly understood (it can be met through emotional, artistic or intellectual labour, in addition to scientific or industrial work) and beyond that there's no expectation for people to work simply for the sake of working.
"Busywork, they used to call it," Haimey comments, while debating with a space pirate who argues lazy people exploit the system. "There's absolutely no value in it. Economic value, or personal. There's value in work you enjoy, or that serves a need. There's no value in work for its own sake. It's just…churn. Anxiety. Doing stuff to be doing stuff, not because it needs doing. There's enough for everybody."
Haimey's character is a compelling and balanced protagonist. She's human enough to have doubts that she acknowledges and explores, yet she's also confident and self-assured. She desires freedom and excitement – it's why she pursued a career on a spacecraft salvage tug, exploring the cosmos – yet also calmly deflects arguments from self-centred capitalistic space pirates who argue the galaxy's social democratic establishment doesn't work. She has a strong sense of the need for community and mutual aid and feels a responsibility toward others, yet couches this in deeply driven individualism and desire for freedom and adventure. In contrast to the cliché narcissistic rogue space adventure hero, she's a character who, while autonomous and self-determined, is upfront about the satisfaction she derives from emotional labour and helping others.
"You'd rather let other people put their well-being over yours?" Haimey's space pirate antagonist asks incredulously.
"When they need it more? Sure would," Haimey replies.
"It seems to me, "comments the pirate, in another exchange, "that you find a lot of your validation in service… You serve other people's needs. Who serves yours?"
"What if what I need is to feel valuable to a community? To feel like I'm contributing and supporting my fellows," replies Haimey.
Haimey is unapologetic, and although open-minded, she doesn't slip into any of the common 'self-reform' tropes of the genre. She's willful yet entirely comfortable with her communitarian and caring approach to life and work.
She also takes full advantage of the future's advanced ability to control the body's biochemistry. She's had some surgical body modifications to make life in space easier for her, and she – like most people in the future -- is able, with the aid of implants, to control the release of chemicals and hormones through her body to meet the needs of different situations. In cases of stress she increases her 'sophipathological' drive to boost her confidence and reduce anxiety; in cases of stress, she also releases chemicals to keep her calm or to help her sleep. The space pirates she encounters serve as a foil to debate the ethics of these practices. They're essentially body puritans who argue that use of chemicals and artificial stimulants is wrong, that if you're not feeling something naturally you're not really feeling it. Here too Haimey deftly dismisses their arguments: artificially controlling the body's neurochemical balance has limits, and shouldn't be used to excess, she says, but it's silly and illogical not to take advantage of the ability to do so if it'll help in a particular situation. She defends the practice of 'rightminding', as it's called, to the ubiquitous puritanical space pirate.
"Nobody controls what I feel except me, and rightminding lets me actually control what I feel, instead of being at the mercy of a whole bunch of very messy evolution. If anything, it makes me able to be more me, and less whatever random genetics and misadventure have installed."
What Bear implicitly does here is normalize the use of drugs and medication for controlling one's mental (as well as bodily) health. The space pirate, ironically, becomes the advocate of a natural approach to physical and mental health; in response Haimey constructs the case for an advanced society to use its expanding technological capacity to make it easier for all of its members to overcome their "atavistic horror show" evolutionary tendencies and use medical and pharmaceutical technology to help themselves live in a civilized way together.
Haimey is no programmed propagandist, however. She reflects, deeply and self-critically on the questions the space pirates pose, with their self-interested version of capitalistic survival of the fittest, and their body purity. She even spends a portion of the novel with her machine interfaces and enhanced body control turned off. Yet time and again, she returns to the conclusion that the approach to life she's chosen is right for her. In a masculinist sci-fi novel of the late 20th century, a protagonist in her shoes would probably experience an epiphany of some sort leading to a dramatic life-change; a climax where the character decides to shed their previous beliefs and transform their lives. Yet Haimey doesn't. Self-assured and confident, she shrugs off the pirates' critiques and continues to live her life as she wants it: helping others, secure in her commitment to the well-being of the community, and with all the body modifications and chemical enhancements she wants.
The ethical and philosophical debates which underpin the story are important, but they're also realized subtly enough that the novel doesn't come across as preachy or didactic. The banter is natural and helps the action flow. And action there is – the space opera-style span of the story features no shortage of fascinating alien species, a few well-constructed battle sequences, and multiple unfolding plot threads. Above all, there's the sense of wonder and mystery that should underpin any sci-fi novel. Haimey's universe is a vast and wondrous place, with evidence of mysterious, long-disappeared advanced civilizations, corruption and scheming within an otherwise very attractive social democratic state, and aliens that are endearing as well as frightening.
The ship's Artificial Intelligence (AI), which they've named Singer, is a main character as well. Advanced spacecraft rely on AI's for smooth functioning in this future, but AIs are considered sentient beings as well. The ethical norms of the future hold that while AIs deserve to pursue independent self-fulfillment like any sentient being, the resource allocation expended in their development (programming, construction) justifies their work requirements in service of their vessel until such time as they have 'paid off' this debt. Internally, Haimey questions this ethic – couldn't the argument be applied to humans as well, in terms of the resources required to produce and raise a human being? – it's interesting to see her and her society grapple with how to balance advanced equity-seeking ethics with a technological sphere reliant on human-programmed AIs.
The end of the story also ropes in an intriguing commentary on colonialism and reconciliation – a theme which often floats around the edges of sci-fi (wandering the stars, for all its important virtues, all too often winds up being an imperialistic venture). This is something Haimey and her society must come to terms with as well, including the question of how to balance forgiveness for past wrongs with the practical needs of the present. Parallels with contemporary ethical debates -- dealing with the legacy of colonialism, slavery and violence -- surface in provocative and intelligent ways.
"It was long ago and we were young," she says, reflecting on her society's past misdeeds, particularly those committed when they came in contact with another advanced civilization. And yet she wonders whether indeed they have learned. Reconciliation is the right path, she's convinced, yet it poses morally complex questions about how to untangle the intersecting mistakes and misdeeds on all sides that inevitably arise when it comes to intercultural engagement. Sometimes reconciliation requires acknowledging that you were wrong. Sometimes it requires forgiveness. Sometimes it requires accepting that the other side might not wish to forgive, or to reconcile, and acknowledging their right to refuse, if indeed you are sincere about your desire to respect them as equals.
"We think of forgiveness as a thing. An incident. A choice. But forgiveness is a process. A long, exhausting process. A series of choices that we have to make over, and over, and over again.
"Because the anger at having been wronged – the rage, the fury, the desire to lash out and cut back – doesn't just vanish because you say to someone, 'I forgive you.' Rather, forgiveness is an obligation you take on not to act punitively on your anger. To interrogate it when it arises, and accept that you have made the choice to be constructive rather than destructive. Not that you have made the choice never to be angry again…
"Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is a train with many stops, and it takes forever to get where you are going. And you cover a lot of territory along the way, not necessarily by the most direct route, either. That's why forgiveness is a process…"
Ancestral Night is a wise, intelligent book for modern-minded, thinking readers. Bear has dabbled in the steampunk and fantasy vein in the past, and while elements of that are recognizable here, for the most part this is hard sci-fi combined with brilliantly imagined speculative fiction. Bear has constructed a fascinating, absorbing universe populated with compelling and intelligent characters who conform to neither clichés nor stereotypes. It's sci-fi of the top order, and here's hoping we see more of it.
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Readers may also be interested in Hans Rollmann's aforementioned "The Geek Feminist Revolution Is Not Only Changing Genres of Fiction, but Society Itself", PopMatters, 13 Jul 2016.
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