2012, A Fertile Sea, Alasdair Gray, Aliens, Andy Jackson, Beowulf, David Braben, Elite, Future Dating, Grendel, Ian McLachlan, James Cameron, James Robertson, Joe Dunthorne, John Lanchester, Ken MacLeod, Life on Mars, London Review of Books, LV-426, O, Penned in the Margins, poem, poems, Poetry, Red Ribbon, review, Robert Holdstock, Sarah Westcott, Science Fiction, SF, verse, When Rockets Burn Through
In the days when video games were packaged in cassette boxes, their lurid covers promised adolescents the sort of ultra-violence that, in sixteen colours and with a screen resolution of 320×200, the graphics were never going to deliver. Elite was different. It came in a large austere black box and shipped with Robert Holdstock’s novella, The Dark Wheel. My imagination plugged the gaps in the crude ray traced graphics and I became Commander Jameson, launching out of geostationary orbit above the planet Lave and into the universe to trade my way to Elite status. I would close my bedroom curtains to better imagine the cockpit of my Cobra Mark III trading ship. I dogfought with pirates above alien suns, as I attempted to scoop fuel ethically from the gases boiling below me. Whenever I fire up a new video game, I feel the same excitement and, as I watch the sun setting over the Malay Archipelago in Far Cry 3, or one of today’s other offerings, my hope is that this world will be as exciting as the universe offered by David Braben in the mid 1980s.
In his preface to Where Rockets Burn Through, Alasdair Gray challenges our preconceptions of SF, inviting us to view the likes of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost anew. He’s on to something, as ‘Paradise Lost describes a universe in some ways more primitive than Dante’s and in others more modern, because he was an English Protestant who had visited Galileo in Italy, so made room in his poem for the solar system revealed through modern telescopes’.
Gray’s right. The reaction to SF in some quarters makes no sense. In Beowulf, Heorot is defenceless, ravaged by the night-stalker, Grendel, and, once he’s dispatched by our hero, Beowulf has to do battle with the monster’s doubly monstrous mother. Is it just me, or does this sound a lot like James Cameron’s Aliens? We want to be thrilled and horrified by the unknown. We’re kept awake at night by our fears for the future and we’ve had no problems elevating the Gothic to the canon. Isn’t it time we took a serious look at SF?
Where Rockets Burn Through demonstrates the range and versatility of SF poetry. In its first section, A Home In Space, we encounter Hollywood’s epic establishing shots and the trials of the colonists. Sarah Westcott’s O, for example, presents a serifed, majuscule O floating on a white page. This O is beautiful, perfect, but also lonely and fragile; it’s a dramatic exclamation and a barely audible gasp. It’s a zero, nothing; it’s already ended. Too little, too late. Westcott’s shifting riddle characterizes the planet as playful yet ineffable. ‘what am I turning quietly and fast / in the great I am, I am here / I am bristling and crusted stripped and pocked / I am teeming and meaning what am I meaning – / where did I come from what cupped me a whole / my core and my aura where rockets burn through’. The repetition of the phrase ‘I am’ evokes God’s voice speaking through the burning bush in Exodus 3:14, ‘I am who I am’ and suddenly that majuscule O becomes an unbroken ring. Infinite. Why, when faced with such beauty, would we design rockets to burn through the aura, as suggestive as this word is of a spiritual essence, a halo crowning creation? Our violent, linear, penetrative behaviour is characterized as at odds with the planet. Perhaps it would be better off without us.
The collection’s Caledonian pedigree serves as a corrective to anyone who presumes that SF’s spiritual home is the United States. Vintage Star Trek invites us to see the Federation as the United States Marine Corps and every alien species as the Viet Cong. This view of SF is pervasive: the universe is American and its way of life is under threat. However, James Robertson’s Scots dialect poetry challenges this. In his sonnet, Life on Mars, we meet a Glaswegian colonist who tells us that ‘Ma son, he’s mairrit on a Martian lass. / See, she wis made and bred here, sae it’s hame / tae her, and that maks sense. Whit’s in a name? / We’re aw jist water, astral stour and gas’. In this elegant poem, the speaker’s question, ‘Whit’s in a name?’ reminds us of Romeo and Juliet II.ii and so, beneath the sonnet’s placid surface lies hostility and families jockeying for status.
Andy Jackson’s intertextual Holidays on LV-426 depends on a knowledge of Alien lore, as Acheron is a desolate moon and subject to brutal weather. ‘Should have checked out TripAdvisor, / Googled up some webcams of the town’, the speaker remarks, as the poem reinvents the seminal SF horror as a satire on the package holiday to a building site. ‘Some end-of the-pier show, this. Look down / on tranquil methane seas the brochure crooned, take your ease on cliff top walks at fulgent dusk‘.
The anthology also explores relationships and some of these poems are worthy of Philip K Dick. In Joe Dunthorne’s glorious Future Dating we are ‘Sat along rotating pine benches, / we wear scrolling badges that display: Name – Favourite thing – Emotional state. / I am Joe – Money – Anxious / as Porcia – Old buildings – Extraordinary / swivels into view with art deco / cheekbones, sky-rise posture’. Dunthorne’s short lines rotate the prospective dates in and out of the poem like dishes at the counter of a sushi restaurant and scroll with the snap judgements of a generation in too much of a hurry to make the time for intimacy. Dunthorne handles dystopian satire, often a leaden form, with comedic lightness of touch and reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut Jr at his finest – in Harrison Bergeron, for example.The anthology also offers darker moments, and Ian McLachlan’s Red Ribbon shows the internet’s power, as the monologue’s speaker achieves twenty-three billion hits and has the forensic calm of Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman: ‘After the pain killers have kicked in / I set to with a surgical knife, serviettes / and a little je ne sais quoi. I picked up / a following, they asked me to do a live show, offered big bucks. No. Privacy’s part of it’. The poem’s irony is obscene, as the artist behaves with the integrity of an unsigned band holding out for creative control. What’s truly troubling about this poem is that it doesn’t read like speculative fiction: the best SF speaks of our own troubled times.
When Rockets Burn Through is an anthology with considerable ambition. SF is at once kitsch and epic, comedic and tragic, conservative and avant garde and, under Russell Jones’ curation, it is presented with appropriate passion and sensitivity. With the scrapping of the shuttle programme, perhaps astronauts are not seen by today’s children as the explorers and adventurers that they were for me. Because Christa McAuliffe was a school teacher, BBC children’s programmes like Blue Peter and Newsround focused on the Challenger mission which exploded on launch with the loss of the lives of the seven astronauts aboard. At that moment, space became more seductive and more dangerous, and Ken MacLeod’s litany, A Fertile Sea, marks that moment. Back in the bedroom, my Cobra Mark III became more exciting and more necessary. ‘Remember Komarov / Remember Grissom, White, Chaffee / Remember Dobrovolsky, Volkov, Patsayev / Remember Resnik, Scobee, Smith, NcNair, / McAuliffe, Jarvis, Onizuka / when you walk the sea-beds of the moon’.