Wednesday, 8 August 2012
In masterful Scots, Wulf Kurtoğlu's Braken Fences describes a dystopian future where the world is partitioned between the "rational" west and the failed, impoverished states of Islamic fundamentalists. It's an epic tale with believable characters and the thoughtful treatment of moral issues that we expect from the best science fiction.
That said, I have several issues with the book's premise, chief among them the question of what rationality actually is. Part of it is logical consistency, and in the case of western states that identify with human rights and democracy, that means avoiding double standards. If we value individual human rights but adopt a group-rights approach in a key conflict, that's a kind of irrationality. The same goes for an attachment to self-determination except when it comes to independence from big, important countries. Muslims notice these double standards.
Moreover, I'd suggest that people also have a hierarchy of political goals, with most — perhaps even most feminists in Palestine or Kashmir — putting national self-determination before women's rights. What's beyond debate is that liberal attitudes in individual societies closely correlate with their wealth. As was recently pointed out to Mitt Romney, it's hard to be a wealth-creator when you have to wait all day at the checkpoint.
Of course, one can also interpret rationality as secularism, but doing so admits the possibility that the divide between "rational" and "fundamentalist" will not dovetail so neatly with that between Christians and Muslims. Littoral America might be in the "rational world", but what about the rather larger bit in the middle, the America of The Handmaid's Tale? Would Lowland Scotland's Presbyterian colonies in the Hebrides and north-east Ulster get into the RW? Likewise, the secular Ashkenazim of gay-friendly Tel Aviv might feel rather more comfortable enjoying a pint with a Bosnian Muslim, or indeed a Scots one, than spending time with the ultra-orthodox of Jerusalem.
Overall, the notion of a neat division of the world into good and bad guys is a little too neat, owing rather too much to the anti-intellectual, Manichaean nature of discourse in the America of the culture wars. We would never attempt it at home. But, of course, home is a place whose shades of grey we actually know.
Wisely or luckily, Kurtoğlu avoids full-on politics and concentrates on characters. Furthermore, the book neatly succeeds in underlining that it is about fundamentalism rather than race through its majority-Asian cast, including its half-Indian heroine, Beatrice Varshini, whose heritage may or may not be a nod to the rational/irrational partition of India. In one or two places the character of Bill Henderson provides the focus for some un-PC thoughts, but the novel leaves us in no doubt as to what we are supposed to think of that. Predictable emphasis is given to borders and their policing, but also, through the novel's concern for Tibetan refugees, to their inherent injustice at an individual level. Young westerners do "rational service" to protect those borders. This is of course a pun on "national service" for those who remember that, but I'm afraid it reminded me for all the world of the IDF.
Life in the fundamentalist zone is short and brutal, and some of the women there have been forced to disguise themselves as men to avoid persecution, thus providing a symbolic parallel to the ditching of empathy that typifies the once-liberal neo-cons to whom the novel presumably speaks. Furthermore, they make use of what in a nice poetic touch is called "The Ceety o Weemen", a contraceptive plant, for at least some of the FZ's female half has decided to stop procreating and thus halt the cycle of male Islamic fundamentalist oppression. This plan is described as collective suicide. I'm not sure that it is, but it does establish a linkage: stop the gene to kill the meme. But what about those immigrants in the real world who bring their own genes and memes with them? In the west, it is the indigenous or assimilated who use contraception. No western woman wants to have 20 children, after all. In fact, most of them don't want to have three. But unassimilated immigrants have a higher birth rate. Will liberal westerners, as a certain grocer's daughter once famously said, end up being "swamped"? This theme is expanded upon in the subplot about the resurrected Neanderthals, whose intermarriage with homo sapiens will for genetic reasons result in their extinction. Is there a parallel here with western multiculturalism? Only the reader can decide.
The Neanderthals bring me to what I felt was the novel's main failing. There is just too much going on. The book seems weighed down by its philosophical concerns, starting with the three lengthy quotations on the first page. I also felt that there were too many minor characters. In some cases their reappearance in the action, or the news that they had passed on, necessitated flicking back to check. Given the fact that perhaps only one in 20 of the Scottish population could nowadays wheech through the Scots version, that seems an indulgence.
Linguistically, as one would expect from one of the very greatest Scots academics of her generation, Braken Fences is a masterpiece of accessible yet full-bodied Scots. As in Philip Robinson's reverse-kailyard works, there is sometimes English dialogue and Scots description, but any Scots novel nowadays is bound to be experimental. The language's full range is also deployed stylistically, with the Neanderthals speaking an Insular dialect. Given the popular associations of the word "Neanderthal", that could of course cause offence, but the novel incorporates the most recent scientific beliefs that they were much more intelligent than previously thought. Complaints about verisimilitude with regard to the speech of Shetland in a science-fiction context seem to me bizarre.
I agree with other reviewers that this is an important book, and a further step in the normalisation of the language. It deserves to be read and argued about, and I hope that this review will make people go out and buy it. I also look forward to more from its author, who has already done much for Scots, and has much to offer in future.