Spring is sizzling like a Tesla Coil, and have I been shooting all over the place! Over the last two months it feels as though I’ve become a veritable global ambassador for diversity in SFF – so much so that the High Dignitaries at JFB Towers have asked me to contribute a guest post accounting for all my activities. So if you like your SFF ravings and reflections spliced with travel postcards, here goes!
My circuit started in March, with an appearance at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Spring Literary Festival in London. As readers of Rook Song know, I’m working with Islamic tropes now, starting with headscarves, and last year I sought feedback on characters Una Dayyani and her assistant Marti from SOAS lecturer Dr Amina Yaqin, who happily responded positively. When she later invited me to speak to the theme of ‘Cultural Confluences’ at the festival I felt excited and a little nervous – to tell the truth I hadn’t realised when I started The Gaia Chronicles just how deeply the series would require me to engage with contemporary cultures not my own. But I’d been grappling with these issues in an essay, ‘Steps on the Silk Road’, forthcoming in the journal Critical Muslim (highly recommended – a great blend of reportage, fiction and poetry), so it was high time I joined the conversation. It was an honour to represent SFF in a room full of writers and readers from Bangladesh to Bloomsbury, and receiving some warm responses to my talk felt – like Sindbad Sci-fi’s adoption of Astra – a real leap forward down my path.
In April came a supercharged visit to Prague, where Cyril Simsa, author of the marvellously esoteric short story collection Lost Cartographies, had invited me to read at the library of the Anglo-American University. It was my first time in Prague, but as I wrote before I left, thanks to a childhood friendship my imagination owes a debt to Czech SF and I was eager to research the history of the genre in the country. My first purchase was a book of tales of the Golem, that lumbering husk of a man created, as the myth has it, by the 16th century Rabbi Loew to serve his household and, when occasion demanded, protect the often scapegoated Jewish community. Though animated from clay in an occult ceremony, the Golem is a proto-SF figure, an influence on the major Czech writer Karel Čapek, whose classic play R.U.R. gave us the word “robot” (suggested by his brother, from the Old Church Slavonic robota, or “forced labour”). Though it’s now accepted that the tale came to Prague in the 18th century, in the U Golema restaurant (how could I not!) I found a laminated article from The Fortean Times arguing that the myth was possibly grafted on to a historical figure, a man with learning disabilities or epilepsy, taken in by the Rabbi, whose violent death was hushed up. Speculative, but interesting to contemplate in relation to the hidden history of disabled people: perhaps someone remembered negatively as frightening and monstrous, yet who was in reality cared for and later became a symbol of the power and vulnerability of his entire community. I also began thinking more deeply about the Sec Gens in relation to the Golem, a figure who shifts from docility to berserk fury. Hmmm . . .
Prague means Kafka of course, and I adored the new multimedia museum exploring his relationship to the city, a long phantasmagorical attic filled with music, shadows, a mirrored cinema and black shiny filing cabinets. ‘Prague won’t let you go: the little mother has claws,’ Kafka wrote and after reading his painful Letter to Father (seventy pages of complaint his father never read),). I thought perhaps for writers cities make better parents than people do. Personally, I fell headlong into Prague’s clutches. While hordes of pleasure seekers brandishing selfie sticks might reduce the most impressive Gothic towers, Art Nouveau buildings and Soviet era blocks to little more than the set of a Eurotrash theme park, for me the influx of Easyjet setters could not ruin Prague’s essential allure; if anything they accented the city’s strong absurdist streak. Anywhere else I would have found helmeted tourists beetling around on Segways vulgar intrusions; in Prague the upright motorists seemed anarchic harbingers of the future metamorphosis of urban transportation. Perhaps, as a professional Tarot card reader, the discovery that the city had historically hosted fortune tellers and alchemists overly tinted my vision, but in the bright spring air even the heaving Old Town seemed a liminal metropolis, a dream city forged by mystics and revolutionaries as much as monarchs, tanks and neoliberal agendas.
I began constructing a tower of my own to transport home, its foundation being Cross Roads, two collections of Karel Čapek’s metaphysical and realist short stories from the enterprising Catbird Press, who have made most of the author’s work available in English. And, elusive, subtle, wry, his fiction deserves to be widely known. Cyril kindly gave me a copy of In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman, the inventive but a touch dated SF stories of late Czech psychotherapist Josef Nesvadba, and also some of his own translations of Czech SFF literature, my favourite being an extraordinary story by Jan Weiss, ‘The Apostle’, a haunting cross between Bladerunner and The Gulag Archipelago. I was also grateful to Cyril for a pamphlet of short stories and essays by the feminist critic and former SF author Eva Hauserová, whose thoughts on cultural biodiversity seemed to mesh with her passion for permaculture gardening. And I picked up A Guided Tour Through The Museum of Communism by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić, a series of acerbic political fables set in various ex-Soviet bloc countries and narrated by animals, beginning with a Czech mouse. Perhaps I’d only built the steps to the doorway of Eastern European SFF, but it felt like a start.
My own books found a niche in Prague. The AAU audience had so many questions that I wound up being interviewed for their online journal by the Russian cultural studies major Anastasiya Shishkina. Anastasiya said I was the first female writer she had ever met – which did seem to justify the carbon footprint of my flight! Finally, to top off this spring frenzy, I returned home to the publication of my interview on ‘FEM SF’ in Writers’ Forum (click the images below – credit Peter Terren/Tesladownunder.com – to read the interview). I mention Mary Shelley as the first SF writer, though since writing my essay on Silk Road fantasy I think the proto-SF tales of the Arabian Nights deserve special mention. There is no evidence, by the way, that Shelley was influenced by tales of the Golem, but if you uncover any please let me know – Cyril will owe me a drink!