Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

The winner of the 2020 Clarke Award for best science-fiction novel of the year is a sprawling epic, charting the lives of multiple generations in Kalingalinga, Zambia, from the arrival of British coloniser Percy M Clark on 8 May 1903.
"I set out for the drift five miles above the [Victoria] Falls, the port of entry into North-western Rhodesia. The Zambesi is at its deepest and narrowest here for hundreds of miles, so it's the handiest spot for 'drifting' a body across. At first it was called Sekute's Drift after a chief of the Leya. Then it was Clarke's Drift, after the first white settler, whom I soon met. No one knows when it became The Old Drift." (p. 4)
We follow the course of this settlement to some time in our own future, the world transformed by technology, the [HIV] Virus and [climate] Change.

For much of its 563 pages I was wondering how it qualified as science-fiction. There's an element of fantasy in the life of Sibilla (born 1939), the Italian girl-woman-grandmother who's entire body and face are covered in thick, fast-growing hair; Agnes (born 1943) plays tennis despite being blind; Matha (born 1948) weeps without stopping for decades, her eyelashes knitting together. Before that stage of her life, there's something delightful about the period in the mid-60s where Matha is an afronaut in the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, whose revolutionary aim is to beat the super-powers to the Moon.
"The ten-foot copper cylinder was propped on its end in the grass, listing peaceably, its bottom quarter singed black from pre-launch testing. The take-off had been disappointing from the point of view of spectacle - Cyclops I had only risen six feet before it crashed to the ground. The mukwa wood catapult he had been considering would not be powerful enough; the mulolo system, while ideal for training cadets to withstand weightlessness, would never swing far enough. Turbulent propulsion was the only way forward!" (p. 162)
It's an often very funny book, full of rascal characters dodging their way through life. In many cases they have little choice if they are to survive. Existence here is often brutal, with sudden, shocking moments of violence and loss and betrayal. Each chapter focuses on a different character's perspective, and we know from the family tree at the start that they - or their descendants - are to intertwine. There's a lot of mixture: of race and culture, of research and technology into people's everyday lives, of history seeping into present such as the effect that an old recording can have on succeeding generations.

In the last section of the book, we veer into more hard sf territory, with the populace encouraged to have "Beads" implanted in their hands, which give them access to the internet and an in-built torchlight, but also puts them at the mercy of their government and foreign pharmaceutical powers, and have racial / colonial undertones. Threads that have woven through much of the story come together: racism, technology, revolutionary politics, the ways we mark and amend our bodies with haircuts, tattoos, implants...

An earlier winner of the Clarke Award, Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones, annoyed me because its benign political future was, I felt, so lacking in detail - as if all that is required to create a utopia is well-meaning people in charge. The Old Drift offers a more complex, nuanced view full of unintended consequences and a sense of greater context - the lives of the people of Zambia affected by its history with Europe, present dealings with America and China, and an uncertain global future given dramatic changes in climate. The last pages, where a revolution kind of happens by accident, is exciting and scary and sci-fi, yet credible - I think because it embraces that chaos, the complexity of the mix, the uncertainty of outcome.

A brief coda then drops some bombshells. The voice who has spoken between each chapter is not what they seemed but - fittingly - something more complex and mixed-up. They tell us, abruptly, of the sudden death of one of the main characters, and of a son born into a new, uncertain world very different from all we've witnessed so far, we hope but not necessarily better. There's no sense of what his life might entail, just that life will, somehow, continue, all of this part of a far bigger picture, as we all slowly drift among the stars.

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