Richard Allday defends science fiction, and enjoys Elaine Graham-Leigh’s The Caduca, a novel for the disregarded
Science fiction novels generally fall into one of two categories. There is the ‘ripping yarn’ action-based model that accepts contemporary mores as immutable, and merely equips their protagonists with high-tech weaponry but still projects their future universes as the status quo on steroids. This is fundamentally the old ‘Western’ updated – cowboys in spaceships - and was the dominant theme in the genre from its inception till (what a surprise) the social upheaval of the ‘60s.
The challenges to the structural inequalities built into the existing social order was the hallmark of the second half of the last century. The growing resistance to imperialism’s mandate, East and West, manifested itself in a multitude of ways – the anti-imperialist struggles in the client-states, and the movements they inspired in the heart of the beast were the immediate and specific consequences. But (as these things do) there were social consequences as well: the increasing refusal to accept oppression found a resonance in the body politic – the emergence of self-organised resistance to racism, from the Freedom Riders on; the (re)growth of the women’s movement; from the ‘60s on, the refusal of gay activists to be excluded or subsumed from the wider movement; all these found an echo in popular culture.
Science fiction (to return to the point) was no exception. The old ‘cowboy’ model is still alive and kicking (witness the success of the ‘Expanse’) even though there is the ritual nod to social justice, in that increasingly there are cowgirls as well, and even significant protagonists of colour. Luckily for these fictional characters, there appears to be no institutional bigotry for them to have to deal with. The future society has moved on from racism and sexism, with no hint of how that was achieved. Which is just another way of painting out the problem, thereby diminishing the characters themselves.
Fortunately for readers, there arose a variant of science fiction which refused to accept that everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds. This is the variant that produced (and was produced by) the likes of Le Guin and McCaffrey, and has proved its longevity, relevance and fruitfulness with the likes of Jemisin. I am not comparing Graham-Leigh with these luminaries; this is after all her debut novel. And Jemisin was not compared to McCaffrey, nor McCaffrey to Le Guin, on their first outing. Time will tell.
What I can say is that here is an author who has explicitly committed herself to the dispossessed, in whatever universe she may happen to find herself. She paints a convincing portrait of those who resist, warts and all, and she does it with compassion for all her characters (and compassion is not the same as exculpation). She presents the tension between love for an individual and love for an ideal; where loyalty to one becomes betrayal of the other; the caustic corrosion of ambition; and the callous manipulation of others by those who have no concern but maintaining their own privilege. In other words, all human life is here – even if not necessarily as we know it (to misquote a Star Trek line that was never actually uttered).
There are those bigots who maintain science fiction has no place in the canon of adult literature (which makes one wonder: are they seriously arguing that Shakespeare’s The Tempest be consigned to the dustbin? Do they reject the slogan of resistance ‘Another world is possible’?). They will unknowingly suffer the loss of not enjoying books such as The Caduca, but they do say that ignorance is bliss.
Above all, Graham-Leigh has written a book that stands with the unremarked, the overlooked, the dispossessed, whose usual fate is to be written out of history yet whose labour is indispensable.
It is a remarkable achievement to have written a novel in which the significant actor is present throughout, but the reader only becomes aware of their significance slowly, and late in the day. But this is how colonialism works; ‘A land without people, for a people without a land’ can only work if you wipe out any rival claim, either by wiping out the claimants, or removing them from the list of ‘people’. But still they are there. And the expropriators rely on them for the dirty jobs. The jobs that respectable people regard as below them. And therein lies part of their power.
This is a book written for the disregarded. Thank you Elaine Graham-Leigh.
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Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
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